In praise of uncertainty
Uncertainty is as essential for life as water, yet how we deal with this volatile element varies enormously from person to person
Uncertainty is a defining feature of the world. Anything can happen; from innocuous errors in DNA replication, to market crashes, to chance encounters on a street. These events can translate to misfortune, but also insight, even revelation. Uncertainty is just as essential for life as water, yet how we deal with this volatile element varies enormously from person to person. In a paper published recently in the journal Neuron, researchers studied this variability in almost 700 people and found that their genes shaped the different ways in which they dealt with uncertainty.
Participants played an online game where they had to choose between two symbols (a square with yellow stripes and a square with blue stripes) that are presented simultaneously on a screen. Players are told that one symbol is correct more often than the other. Feedback, in the form of a happy or sad emoticon, is given after every round of the game to let the player know if she has selected the correct symbol. The goal is to choose the symbol that tends to be correct more often over the course of the game. The very first choice is, by definition, a guess, but once the feedback starts rolling, more nuanced decisions about the future are possible.
The key point is that the computer occasionally tries to throw the player off with feedback that is deceptive. For example, a sad emoticon may indicate that a choice is incorrect, when in fact the player has chosen the correct symbol, or vice versa. As best they can, each player tries to figure out the prevailing wind of the game. And as time goes on, they can draw on an ever deepening past, with beliefs gradually beginning to emerge. This is enough to be going on with, but things get more interesting.
Halfway through the game, the rule changes. What was previously the correct symbol now becomes the incorrect symbol. But it's not possible to just walk through this Alice in Wonderland mirror, stepping out on the other side knowing a new rule. There is a very human time-lag before an old belief is abandoned in favour of a new one. Think of Galileo and the paradigm shift in astronomy that precipitated a century or more of controversy before a critical weight of evidence supplanted the old ingrained belief. This is not to say that we should abandon our beliefs overnight; perseverance also has its place. Ideas that are contrary to a prevailing dogma are always likely to be attacked when they first appear. This innate conservatism tends to destroy half-baked ideas, while theories that withstand hostile criticism are more likely to be the honed work of a persistent mind. What the research published in Neuron found was that the tension between the rigid and the malleable mind frame, and the extent to which we draw on both of these strategies, is subtly shaped by two interesting genes.
The DAT1 gene influences the brain chemical dopamine and earlier work has shown that this chemical affects the way rewards are processed. Drugs of addiction such as cocaine also target reward areas in the brain by way of the dopamine system. The SERT gene on the other hand influences serotonin, which can shape our response to negative or stressful events. All of the players were genotyped for DAT1 and SERT, with the goal of seeing if specific genotypes might reveal different strategies when playing the game. And sure enough they did.
For carriers of one variant of the SERT gene (the "L" variant), negative feedback tended to act like a sting, causing them to change tack immediately, regardless of the history of the game. This hyper-flexible profile focuses on the short-term, with negative feedback leading to an immediate switch of symbol choice. While this strategy may be flexible, it neglects the overall history of the game, making it more difficult to detect the rule. The high priority placed on avoiding negative feedback also echoes previous research in depression where low levels of serotonin relate to an excessive fear of punishment.
The DAT1 gene, on the other hand, altered a more long-term strategy in the game. Players with a particular variant (the "9-repeat" variant) showed a stronger reliance on their accumulated experience. This may be useful for detecting deceptive feedback in the first half of the game, but it has the drawback of making it more difficult to change a belief after rule reversal. Once a belief has been built up steadily, people with this variant of the DAT1 gene may have closed the window to new learning. These players tended to hold on doggedly despite the build up of evidence from the time of rule reversal that should challenge their belief.
So these two genes shape our choices about the future in quite different ways. Each choice represents a different set of mental calculations, but ultimately everyone is trying to solve the same problem – the uncertainty of the future. Despite the fact that the data we have will never fully add up, humans remain preternaturally disposed to making sense of the world. And uncertainty, with the possibility of confusion and discovery in equal measure, will always remain a labyrinth. In earlier times astrological signs could be thought of as proto or pseudo genotypes that were used to characterise how people navigate this labyrinth. We now have a more tangible hold on our biology and this paper in Neuron marks an interesting new direction in understanding how our genes influence the choices we make.
We should remember though that the difficulty of the problem is a necessary part of human life; absolute solutions should always be dealt with warily. As Czesław Miłosz pointed out in his account of totalitarian systems, the illusion of certainty is the more dangerous side of the pendulum, no matter what our genotype happens to be. When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
Science Weekly podcast: sounds of the space shuttle – reloaded
This week Kevin Fong sits in for Alok Jha, who is treading in the footsteps of the great explorer Douglas Mawson on his 1911 Antarctic expedition. Click here to follow Alok's Antarctica Live blog.
Kevin is joined by Observer writer and Tech Monthly commissioning editor Nicola Davis, Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample, and Observer science editor Robin McKie, who has just won this year's Press Gazzette best science writer award.
The team debate some of the big science stories of the past week, including the discovery of the oldest known human DNA in Spain and what is says about human evolution, the first full face transplant patients reporting back after their life-changing surgery, and neuroscience tinkering with the brain's will to perservere.
Sidestepping the arguments about the scientific plausibility of Alfonso Cuaron's brilliant evocation of the hazards of human spaceflight in Gravity, we dust off our 2012 Sony Gold award-winning "Sounds of the space shuttle". Astronauts Piers Sellers and Scott Altman re-live the excitement of a journey into space and back again on board the real space shuttle.
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I have PSP. The neurologist said: 'I can't do anything for you'
Keith Swankie has a rare and fatal neurological disease. Now, he is trying to raise the profile of progressive supranuclear palsy, a condition even most GPs would fail to recognise
It was his eyes clamping shut that first prompted Keith Swankie to talk to his doctor. The supermarket manager was 38 years old and never imagined that the bouts of blindness were the first symptoms of a rare condition that will eventually kill him.
Swankie has a disease that hardly anyone has heard of: progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). Often confused with other neuro-degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's disease, PSP is more commonly found in postmortems than during life. It is the disease that actor Dudley Moore had, and is caused by the progressive death of nerve cells in the brain, causing difficulty with balance, movement, vision, speech and swallowing.
Diagnosing PSP before death involves piecing together a jigsaw of clues, ruling out other conditions and, in Swankie's case, a perceptive GP. His initial referral to a specialist brought no answers. "The neurologist said: 'I can't do anything for you'," recalls the father of two.
Then came new symptoms: falls, tremors, difficulty speaking, troubled sleep, irritability. It was only when Swankie's GP was at a conference where a geriatrician was talking about PSP that the pieces started to fall into place. Tests followed and, in April 2012, more than two years after those initial eye problems, Swankie was finally diagnosed. At last he had a name to put to his list of increasingly distressing symptoms – but the diagnosis meant having to accept that he was dying.
Now 42, Swankie recalls the day of his test results. He had gone to the hospital without his wife Sheelagh and remembers returning to the family home in Arbroath, near Dundee, and waiting for her to come in from work. "I had to explain to her what had happened and what the diagnosis was, and it obviously came as a huge blow. When I was discussing it with her, the impact hit me that this isn't going to get better."
The hardest part was telling their daughters, Nikki, 19, and Jordan, 15. "We held off for a while to try and get our own heads round it," he says.
As with anyone with PSP, Swankie cannot say for sure how long he has left. The life expectancy from onset is thought to be around seven years, but pinpointing that onset feels impossible. I have my own experience of the condition. My mother has PSP and every so often my brother and I reluctantly have the conversation about whether the first signs were when she was unsteady on a summer holiday to France. Or was it even earlier, when we thought an unrelated operation had upset her balance?
Swankie says he is trying to be realistic about his own prognosis. "We reckon we are probably midway through it. They usually say seven to 10 years but my consultant was very honest and said five to eight years. It's difficult knowing you probably won't walk your daughter down the aisle or be a grandad. That's the thing that's the biggest cheat, the thing I feel cheated out of in my life."
The family try to go for meals and have friends over, but PSP puts frustrating limits on his life. "On a very bad day, you could struggle to get out of bed. You can struggle to eat a meal because the muscles go into spasm and won't allow you to swallow, which can lead to a choking attack. There's urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence," says Swankie.
It was debilitating symptoms such as those that led Dr Anne Turner, who had the condition, to end her own life in Switzerland in 2006 – a story later dramatised for TV with Julie Walters.Swankie says that on dark days he does discuss with Sheelagh at what point they choose to opt for a "do not resuscitate" (DNR) order. For now, though, he wants to use his time to speak up about PSP.
After attending an event by the PSP Association he was asked if he would feature in a video. "Absolutely. Bring it on," was his reaction. The online short film, Keith's Story, features frank interviews with the family. Swankie hopes it will help raise the profile of a disease that most GPs will probably come across once in their careers at most. Better recognition could secure more funding for research into cures and treatment but would also mean the condition does not get missed so often, say experts.
"I can say with confidence that a lot of people with PSP in their brains are not being recognised," says Dr Ian Coyle-Gilchrist, part of a team of neurologists at Cambridge University researching PSP and related conditions. "A lot of the time it's being missed, or people call it Parkinson's disease or depression or getting old, and some people are just residing in care homes with the wrong label of dementia."
Previous estimates are that around five in 100,000 people have PSP, but Coyle-Gilchrist wants to put a figure on a person's lifetime risk of getting it. Research has much wider potential as well, he says, because it could unlock other neurological conditions. Unlike most forms of dementia: "When we see someone with typical PSP, we can be very confident of what is happening in their brains; the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau. That same protein plays a role in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. So we have a unique opportunity to study how tau affects our brain and how we can try to stop it."
The neurologist is optimistic that researchers will produce new ways of slowing PSP's progression. Some ways to manage symptoms are already out there, such as drugs for anxiety and Botox for clamping eyelids, he says. The problem is that, much like PSP itself, they are not widely known.
"There is a lot to do to change things now, to slow things down and improve quality of life, while researchers work towards a cure," he says.
Newborn babies may be more developed than we think
Cognitive development research is – like its subjects – still in its infancy, but it seems that our tiny tots are a lot smarter than science once gave them credit for
My baby could not look more like a subject in a laboratory experiment. Wearing a soft white skullcap attached by long wires to an EEG machine measuring his brain activity, he is also surrounded by computer equipment and fussing researchers at University College London. "Hopefully you'll be contributing to high-powered science!" one coos at him.
Before I'm written off as a bad mother, I should explain: this is the London Babylab, part of UCL's cognitive development research group, which studies how infants perceive the world around them. The tests aren't uncomfortable, and are supposed to be fun. They're also a rare chance for me to peer inside my baby's mind. Scientists have him, a healthy 15-week-old, look at shapes and cartoon characters while they track his gaze and brain responses. Cradled in my lap, he watches the screen, and thinks.
I have spent hours wondering what he's thinking. The problem is that getting inside the head of a baby is like deciphering the thoughts of a kitten. And a wriggly three-month-old who is just as interested in the ceiling tiles as what's on the screen doesn't always make for the best research subject. "Lots of people don't like working with babies because it's super difficult. With adults, you can just ask them questions. With animals, you can make them do things. Not with babies," says UCL researcher Zita Patai.
But with creative, highly targeted experiments (the key, as any parent knows, is to turn everything into a game) scientists are starting to understand the baby brain. At the same time, this growing body of research is adding weight to a popular theory that our little bundles of joy are far more intelligent than we have assumed.
The immediate motivation behind this particular research at UCL is to compare the brains of healthy babies with those who may have suffered a lack of oxygen as newborns because of illness.
"We want to see if we can spot any early behaviours that suggest a baby will have problems in later life," says Patai.
"The idea is that you show two types of stimuli, in this case different sounds and images on a screen – one that appears frequently, the other infrequently – and then look at how they respond. There should be a significant difference between the two responses, even in young babies," she adds. The expectation is that brain-damaged babies may not be as sophisticated in their reactions.
Such studies are also changing the way we think about child development. Laura Schulz, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes it as an "infant revolution" in science. She credits it partly to the changing status of women in research, which has helped mothers and children be taken more seriously as subjects.
The popularity of the field has also snowballed as surprising results roll in. "Babies know much more about the world than we previously believed. They have a lot of prior knowledge, right from birth. They're very sophisticated learners," says Schulz.
Michelle De Haan, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, adds: "Until recently, babies weren't thought to be active choosers of information. We now know that's not true."
Babies don't randomly engage with the world around them. They have preferences, betrayed by how long they stare at one thing over another. Looking-time studies, which track what holds an infant's gaze, have allowed scientists to get a stronger handle on what babies really know.
It was once believed, for instance, that young babies had a limited understanding of physical properties such as gravity and the fact that objects are solid. But looking-time studies have shown that they stare longer at a toy car that seems to be moving through a solid wall than at actions that don't betray the laws of physics, implying that they find it odd when these universal rules are broken. This isn't limited to human babies. "There's evidence now that even newborn chicks can do that, and lots of other animals," says Schulz.
Another discovery is that babies appear to understand rational action. In 1997, Hungarian researchers showed babies who were less than a year old an animation of a circle jumping over a rectangular block. When the block was taken away but the circle still performed a jump to get behind where the block had been, babies were more surprised than when the circle moved in a straight line to reach the other side. It was evidence, the researchers concluded, that babies expected the circle to behave with some degree of common sense.
More recently, it has been suggested that babies have an innate sense of number straight out of the womb. An American and French study published in 2009 played newborns sequences of four sounds and of 12 sounds, followed by images with the same number of objects. The results showed that babies looked longer at the images that matched the sounds in quantity.
A paper published this year by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed that children as young as six months may be able to reason using probabilities. When they were shown a box filled with coloured balls, almost all of them pink and the rest yellow, babies watched longer when someone began picking more yellow balls out of the box than pink ones. The experiment suggested that the babies knew to expect more pink balls and were surprised when that wasn't what happened.
Schulz thinks that much of the scientific enthusiasm around babies stems from the fact that they have so much to teach us about intelligence. Researchers have tried to study intelligence artificially, using computers, but this has turned out to be tough, she explains. "You can't get computers to reason about others' intentions, for example. If you want to understand how human intelligence and learning works, there's exactly one organism that solves all those problems: babies," she says. "Much like if you want to really understand flying, you should look at birds."
Cutting-edge technology is pushing the boundaries of baby research even further. "Early infant work relied on looking-time studies but our technology has advanced so we can complement them with brain imaging and eye tracking," says Victoria Southgate, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Birkbeck Babylab in London.
Using neuroimaging, for example, researchers from Birkbeck and the University of Padua have found that day-old babies can tell the difference between social interactions and non-social actions, such as an arm throwing a ball.
Southgate's research focuses on the motor cortex – a region in the brain responsible for planning and carrying out movement – which has been found to activate when adults look at people doing physical things such as reaching for an object. Her results point to the possibility that a baby's does, too, even though they aren't physically capable of doing most of these things themselves.
This all promises to answer the question of just how developed we humans are when we are born. Do newborns come pre-programmed, or are they blank slates? "We know that the adult brain is divided into separate functions, with different regions for different things. But there is still a controversy about how this happens," says De Haan. Scientists remain split between those who think that our brains develop this over time, through experience, and those who think our brains arrive into the world this way.
The fact that babies show at least some of the same differences between brain areas as adults, as Southgate's work so far seems to prove, is lending more credence to the idea that localised brain activity is something we are born with. "If you think about it, it's not much of a surprise," says Southgate. "There must be a degree of specialisation from the start so that infants pay attention to the right things."
But in a field so new, there are minefields. Tempting though it is to want to "see" what babies' brains look like on the inside, brain imaging doesn't necessarily offer many more insights. Knowing what our grey matter looks like doesn't answer the important question of how the brain solves tasks.
More fundamentally, though, there is the possibility that baby researchers in general are reading too much into their results. "It's a contentious issue," says Gert Westermann, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University, who studies children up to 18 months old. "Researchers are ascribing ever more spectacular qualities to infants. Everybody likes to hear that infants can do great things. But when you run these kinds of studies, there are different ways to interpret them."
For instance, he says, a baby may stare at an object for a long time not because they have a deep understanding of physics or maths but because it just happens to be more interesting than what they've seen before. Westermann doesn't agree with the idea that babies are born with a sophisticated, innate knowledge of the world. A simpler explanation, he says, is that newborns learn at such lightning speed that even at the point at which they're studied, they've acquired a good understanding of the things around them.
Baby studies, however, continue to feed the parent-pleasing possibility that we are all spawning baby Einsteins. While it is true that babies are smarter than it was thought 50 years ago, Southgate, like Westermann, cautions against taking this too far. "Clever-baby studies get published in the popular press far more than those that confirm the apparently stupid things that children do," she says.
One study by psychologists at the University of St Andrews in 2005, for example, compared how young children and chimpanzees copied people's actions. It found that children imitate more than they need to, even when it should be clear to them that there's no point in it. "Chimps copy only what is useful," says Southgate. "Make of that what you will."
Why it's time for brain science to ditch the 'Venus and Mars' cliche
Reports trumpeting basic differences between male and female brains are biological determinism at its most trivial, says the science writer of the year
As hardy perennials go, there is little to beat that science hacks' favourite: the hard-wiring of male and female brains. For more than 30 years, I have seen a stream of tales about gender differences in brain structure under headlines that assure me that from birth men are innately more rational and better at map-reading than women, who are emotional, empathetic multi-taskers, useless at telling jokes. I am from Mars, apparently, while the ladies in my life are from Venus.
And there are no signs that this flow is drying up, with last week witnessing publication of a particularly lurid example of the genre. Writing in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia revealed they had used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to show that the neurons in men's brains are connected to each other in a very different way from neurons in women's brains.
This point was even illustrated by the team, led by Professor Ragini Verma, with a helpful diagram. A male brain was depicted with its main connections – coloured blue, needless to say – running from the front to the back. Connections within cranial hemispheres were strong, but connections between the two hemispheres were weak. By contrast, the female brain had thick connections running from side to side with strong links between the two hemispheres.
"These maps show us a stark difference in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others," said Verma.
The response of the press was predictable. Once again scientists had "proved" that from birth men have brains which are hardwired to give us better spatial skills, to leave us bereft of empathy for others, and to make us run, like mascara, at the first hint of emotion. Equally, the team had provided an explanation for the "fact" that women cannot use corkscrews or park cars but can remember names and faces better than males. It is all written in our neurons at birth.
As I have said, I have read this sort of thing before. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. It is biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst. Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Males develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing. Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative, and so their verbal skills are emphasised by teachers and parents. As the years pass, these different lifestyles produce variations in brain wiring – which is a lot more plastic than most biological determinists realise. This possibility was simply not addressed by Verma and her team.
Equally, when gender differences are uncovered by researchers they are frequently found to be trivial, a point made by Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioural genetics at London's Institute of Psychiatry, whose studies have found that a mere 3% of the variation in young children's verbal development is due to their gender. "If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls, you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them. Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild."
I should make it clear that Plomin made that remark three years ago when I last wrote about the issue of gender and brain wiring. It was not my first incursion, I should stress. Indeed, I have returned to the subject – which is an intriguing, important one – on a number of occasions over the years as neurological studies have been hyped in the media, often by the scientists who carried them out. It has taken a great deal of effort by other researchers to put the issue in proper perspective.
A major problem is the lack of consistent work in the field, a point stressed to me in 2005 – during an earlier outbreak of brain-gender difference stories – by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, and author of Y: The Descent of Men. "Researching my book, I discovered there was no consensus at all about the science [of gender and brain structure]," he told me. "There were studies that said completely contradictory things about male and female brains. That means you can pick whatever study you like and build a thesis around it. The whole field is like that. It is very subjective. That doesn't mean there are no differences between the brains of the sexes, but we should take care not to exaggerate them."
Needless to say that is not what has happened over the years. Indeed, this has become a topic whose coverage has been typified mainly by flaky claims, wild hyperbole and sexism. It is all very depressing. The question is: why has this happened? Why is there such divergence in explanations for the differences in mental abilities that we observe in men and women? And why do so many people want to exaggerate them so badly?
The first issue is the easier to answer. The field suffers because it is bedevilled by its extraordinary complexity. The human brain is a vast, convoluted edifice and scientists are only now beginning to develop adequate tools to explore it. The use of diffusion tensor imaging by Verma's team was an important breakthrough, it should be noted. The trouble is, once more, those involved were rash in their interpretations of their own work.
"This study contains some important data but it has been badly overhyped and the authors must take some of the blame," says Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University. "They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain."
Even more critical is Marco Catani, of London's Institute of Psychiatry. "The study's main conclusions about possible cognitive differences between males and females are not supported by the findings of the study. A link between anatomical differences and cognitive functions should be demonstrated and the authors have not done so. They simply have no idea of how these differences in anatomy translate into cognitive attitudes. So the main conclusion of the study is purely speculative."
The study is also unclear how differences in brain architecture between the sexes arose in the first place, a point raised by Michael Bloomfield of the MRC's Clinical Science Centre. "An obvious possibility is that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogen have different effects on the brain. A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired."
In fact, Verma's results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain's wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.
Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue. In the end, I suspect it depends on whether you believe our fates are sealed at birth or if you think that it is a key part of human nature to be able to display a plasticity in behaviour and in ways of thinking in the face of altered circumstance. My money is very much on the latter.
Boris Johnson missed the point on IQ – gifted children are failed by the system | Deborah Orr
From politicians to psychologists, too many people fail to understand how high intelligence can isolate people, especially children
In all the furore surrounding Boris Johnson's comments on IQ, one of the many respects in which he was utterly wrong has been barely mentioned. In fairness, this isn't entirely Johnson's fault. It is an endemic misunderstanding, the assumption that people with IQs over 130 are likely to sail through life, effortlessly achieving "success".
It's been good to see neuroscience getting a popular airing this week. One can certainly complain that a study from the University of Pennsylvania into mental illness in children and young adults, widely reported as having demonstrated brain differences between males and females, has been "reduced to pop psychology". But, in truth, neuroscience does not penetrate our general culture nearly enough.
Even experienced psychologists, let alone "pop" ones, often fail to understand how high intelligence can isolate people, especially children. Yet, neuroscience tells us the difference between "normal" and "gifted" brains is significant. A 2006 study from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, found that more intelligent children "demonstrate a particularly plastic cortex, with an initial accelerated and prolonged phase of cortical increase, which yields to equally vigorous cortical thinning by early adolescence". The study also demonstrated that maximum cortical thickness came at around five-and-a-half for its "average" group, eight-and-a-half for its "high" group and just past 11 for its "superior" group. The more intelligent a child is, the later their cortex will start thinning and the later it will become fully "sculpted", as researcher Jay Giedd puts it. This all fits with previous psychological theories. Gifted children, it is accepted, exhibit "asynchronous development", as described by the Columbus Group in 1991. This causes them all kinds of problems, not least because an 11-year-old can be one minute regaling captivated adults with their thoughts on the banking crisis, and the next throwing a tantrum because everyone else in the class can tie their shoelaces, while they can't.
This theory incorporates an older theory, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, posited by the Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who suggested that gifted kids are prone to one or more of five "overexcitabilities": psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual and imaginational.
Time and research has certainly borne him out on the first two. Gifted children are prone to learning disabilities – dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, all those conditions that cynics are prone to insist are manifestations of little Tarquin's parents' inability to accept that he isn't as clever as they want him to be. But lot of the time little Tarquin's parents are not deluded, not at all.
Gifted children tend to have particular problems with sensory processing, sensory modulation and dyspraxia. [pdf download] They are also more likely to be overwhelmed by their over- and sometimes underdeveloped senses, with their brain failing accurately to "read" what their bodies are telling them about their environment. This is not surprising, since they have so many neural pathways to choose from, in their big, messy cortices, and so much sculpting to do.
Sometimes these symptoms are merely a consequence of asynchronicity, and will sort themselves out. Dyslexia, for example, sometimes just disappears. But sometimes a gifted child with these deficits will become a gifted adult with these deficits. The cliches – absent-minded professor, computer genius who can't drive a car, artistic giant with explosive temperament – chime with what neuroscience tells us.
Asynchronous development can also mean a child's intellect is way ahead of his executive functions, the parts of the brain that manage cognitive processes. This will make him disorganised, unable to grasp spoken instructions or challenged by mental arithmetic. Even if his brain is generating ideas thick and fast, he may struggle to put them on paper.
In the US, it's more common for a child to be recognised as being gifted and also learning-disabled. They call it being "twice exceptional" or "2e". In Britain, however, virtually the only organisation that is really up on what they call "dual or multiple exceptionality" is the charity Potential Plus UK.
What all this means, contrary to Johnson's banal non-observations, is that children with IQs of more than 130 can be very vulnerable. The selective private sector education system that blessed us with Johnson and his colleagues, and also the grammar school system he lauds, are not the infallible machines for attracting the finest minds he thinks they are. On the contrary, they test children before the smartest have even stopped growing, let alone started sculpting their neural pathways, and when their mental abilities may still be highly asynchronous. Someone who is good at maths and English will pass their 11-plus, while someone who is highly able at one but – as yet – terrible at the other, perhaps due to a passing learning disability caused by asyncronicity, will fail. Selective education identifies the children who are good at everything already, not the children with the greatest learning potential.
In the state system, these children do not always thrive either. They are often bored in class, especially if they have an unrecognised learning disability. Even if it's recognised, a child may not qualify for extra help if that disability is not driving their academic performance below a bureaucratically fixed point. Which is like saying that a child doesn't need a prosthetic leg because he hops quite fast. If a child has sensory processing issues, too, then just the stimulation of large classrooms will drive them to distraction, or "sensory overload", causing an "emotional meltdown".
Even for a clever child without such difficulties, school has essentially been designed to encourage them to become independent learners. A gifted child is an independent learner already, but is still expected to sit in class for 15 years being coaxed into thinking for herself. The writer, Jenn Ashworth, has described what torture all this was, without quite realising what she was describing. But Ashworth was one of the lucky ones. She found her own way, pretty much avoiding school altogether from 11 to 15, then gritting her teeth to get the exams that would take her to Cambridge.
Many gifted children are at risk of underachievement, or even of leaving education, entirely unaware that their problem is not that they are stupid, but that they're clever. Potential Plus UK warns that vulnerable groups of students include, among others, those in low socio-economic groups, black and minority groups, and those with English as an additional language.
Yet, even the Tarquins of this world are hard to advocate for. The US psychologist James T Webb warns that gifted children are often misdiagnosed as having behavioural, emotional or mental disorders. Even when they do have such disorders, the chances are that the disorder will be attended to, but not the underlying ultra-brightness. They will be pathologised, rather than understood and supported.
There is indeed a male-female brain difference relevant to this matter. Female brains have larger basal ganglia, which help the frontal lobe with executive functioning. As Giedd says: "Almost everything is more common in boys – autism, dyslexia, learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette's … girls, by having larger basal ganglia, may be afforded some protection from these illnesses."
So, as Britain's politicians ponder the reasons why the UK is so far down the PISA mathematics list, they might want to consider funding some research from some paediatric neuropsychologists. Their endless arguments over whether it's all the fault of the left or the right are unproductive. The answers lie in the brains of children, not of politicians.
Gender differences all in the mind | @guardianletters
According to your report (Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal, 2 December): "Maps of neural circuitry show women's brains are designed for social skills and memory, men's for perception and co-ordination." Yet another deeply confused "hard-wired brain" story. It has received much comment, not least for the empirical mismatch between the data and the conclusion, given that the cited study apparently provides "strong evidence for behavioural similarities between the sexes". But there is something even more basic at stake.
Will scientists, journalists and readers wake up to this truism: if the mind is the brain, any mental difference will be a brain difference. Suppose there are some actual mental differences between men and women, whatever their prior causes. (Hard to imagine training up half of humanity one way, half another, without creating some differences between them.) There will then be some neural differences. Suppose you have two televisions, whose images are different. You call in the technician, who trumpets the discovery that they differ in their pattern of pixels. That bit we knew already: no difference in the images without a difference in the pixels. Same for ourselves: no difference in states of mind without a difference in states of brain. That doesn't mean it has to be that way, or is designed to be that way. Even if your mind is your brain, that doesn't mean "your brain made you do it", as if the "you" were a different being. Let's not fall for this confusion, or we'll take what happens to be the case and freeze it. We'll take differences, however they may have come about, and make them seem inevitable and appropriate. We don't need this deterministic fairy-tale. It's bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all.
Professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
Professor John Dupré
Visiting professor of gender studies, University of Cambridge
• Obviously, then, men are better drivers, having superior "motor skills".
Electric brain stimulation induces feeling of determination – video
A patient describes a sensation of perseverance when a particular part of his brain is stimulated
'Determination' can be induced by electrical brain stimulation | Ian Sample
Applying an electric current to a particular part of the brain makes people feel a sense of determination, say researchers
Doctors in the US have induced feelings of intense determination in two men by stimulating a part of their brains with gentle electric currents.
The men were having a routine procedure to locate regions in their brains that caused epileptic seizures when they felt their heart rates rise, a sense of foreboding, and an overwhelming desire to persevere against a looming hardship.
The remarkable findings could help researchers develop treatments for depression and other disorders where people are debilitated by a lack of motivation.
One patient said the feeling was like driving a car into a raging storm. When his brain was stimulated, he sensed a shaking in his chest and a surge in his pulse. In six trials, he felt the same sensations time and again.
Comparing the feelings to a frantic drive towards a storm, the patient said: "You're only halfway there and you have no other way to turn around and go back, you have to keep going forward."
When asked by doctors to elaborate on whether the feeling was good or bad, he said: "It was more of a positive thing, like push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this."
A second patient had similar feelings when his brain was stimulated in the same region, called the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC). He felt worried that something terrible was about to happen, but knew he had to fight and not give up, according to a case study in the journal Neuron.
Both men were having an exploratory procedure to find the focal point in their brains that caused them to suffer epileptic fits. In the procedure, doctors sink fine electrodes deep into different parts of the brain and stimulate them with tiny electrical currents until the patient senses the "aura" that precedes a seizure. Often, seizures can be treated by removing tissue from this part of the brain.
"In the very first patient this was something very unexpected, and we didn't report it," said Josef Parvizi at Stanford University in California. But then I was doing functional mapping on the second patient and he suddenly experienced a very similar thing."
"Its extraordinary that two individuals with very different past experiences respond in a similar way to one or two seconds of very low intensity electricity delivered to the same area of their brain. These patients are normal individuals, they have their IQ, they have their jobs. We are not reporting these findings in sick brains," Parvizi said.
The men were stimulated with between two and eight milliamps of electrical current, but in tests the doctors administered sham stimulation too. In the sham tests, they told the patients they were about to stimulate the brain, but had switched off the electical supply. In these cases, the men reported no changes to their feelings. The sensation was only induced in a small area of the brain, and vanished when doctors implanted electrodes just five millimetres away.
Parvizi said a crucial follow-up experiment will be to test whether stimulation of the brain region really makes people more determined, or simply creates the sensation of perseverance. If future studies replicate the findings, stimulation of the brain region – perhaps without the need for brain-penetrating electrodes – could be used to help people with severe depression.
The anterior midcingulate cortex seems to be important in helping us select responses and make decisions in light of the feedback we get. Brent Vogt, a neurobiologist at Boston University, said patients with chronic pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder have already been treated by destroying part of the aMCC. "Why not stimulate it? If this would enhance relieving depression, for example, let's go," he said.
Does neuromarketing live up to the hype? | Pete Etchells
Pete Etchells: We increasingly seem to be bombarded with adverts and PR stunts which make grandiose claims about our brains. But the actual science isn’t there yet.