The Perils of (Brain) Porn

I learned a valuable lesson in college. Don’t trust scientific papers. Not overmuch, anyway. As they say in the Royal Society: Nullius in verba, which I will loosely translate as “Don’t take my word for it.”

As an undergrad, I took a psychology class with Julian Jaynes. He was the author of the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It is an idiosyncratic theory about how consciousness first arose in the human species. But since nobody really has any clue how consciousness got started or even what it is, there’s plenty of room for quirky ideas. Incredibly, despite being 40 years old, the book has never gone out of print.

The short version of his theory is that consciousness as we know it arose only a few thousand years ago. Before that, humans were “bicameral,” meaning one half of the human brain was giving orders to the other. As Jaynes says, “[For bicameral humans], volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” In other words, all humans used to behave like schizophrenics listening to hallucinated voices which compelled them to act.

For my class with Jaynes, I wrote a paper about schizophrenic hallucinations. This was the idea: if we could see that, during the auditory hallucinations of a schizophrenic, it actually did look like one side of the brain was “talking” and the other “listening,” that might provide some indirect evidence that Jaynes was onto something. But how could you observe such a thing? The answer, it seemed was to use a new (at the time) brain-imaging technology called PET, or Positron Emission Tomography. PET makes beautiful color images of the brain at work. Like this.


Journals are suckers for beautiful color images of brains. It sure looks important, doesn’t it? Some people call this brain porn.

So anyway, I was able to dig up a paper that imaged the brains of schizophrenics as they were hearing voices. At first I found the reference, but I didn’t have the full paper, so I called the author. Actually, I called his office. The author had already departed for another position. But his former officemate picked up the phone and kindly agreed to forward the paper to me. Then he said these words: “I wouldn’t trust the results of that paper if I were you.” Oh? Please go on. “I think his software is no good. The results you see could have more to do with bad programming than brain activity.” Although I suppose one might say the paper was demonstrating brain pathology, only in the investigator rather than the patient. But I took the point.

I was always grateful for the candor of that anonymous officemate, and I always remembered the lesson. These memories came back to me recently because a similar situation has come up with a brain imaging technique called fMRI. Here’s a headline for you: Bug in fMRI software calls 15 years of research into question. If their concerns prove true, as many as 40,000 papers could be invalidated. Exclamation point! And here’s some good background on the same topic from the New Yorker: Neuroscience Fiction.

The march of science is, as they say in the business, nonmonotonic. Beware of pretty pictures and obfuscated code.

SoHo, Soho, and So On

During the 1980s, my sister lived in the East Village in New York. When I visited, she would fill me in on cool Manhattan stuff like the names of the various neighborhoods. This is Chelsea, there’s Tribeca, and here’s SoHo. SoHo, she informed me, stands for South of Houston Street. Oh, and remember that Houston is pronounced more like the building where you live than the city in Texas. Good to know. But I also know that Americans have the habit of naming things after places in Europe. And Soho also happens to be a neighborhood in London. SoHo sounded suspiciously like a legitimizing back-construction.

Name recycling is rampant in the United States. Generally speaking it has two roots: homesickness and marketing.

Where I live in New England (New + “England”), recycled European place names are mostly due to straight up homesickness. Let’s imagine you were originally from Cambridge in England. So you called your squalid new colonial outpost Cambridge, even though there is no river Cam and no bridge over it. But you miss your old home terribly, and this nostalgic gesture was meant to cheer you up. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. It hardly matters. You’ll be dead from a fever in a week anyway.


The other kind of re-naming is lamer still. Let’s imagine that you were not originally from Athens, Greece. In fact, you’ve never even been there. You read about it in a book, and you think appropriating its name might help legitimize your otherwise dismal and insubstantial hamlet in, say, north Georgia. In marketing terms, this is simple brand theft, akin to calling your local fizzy wine “champagne.” Wikipedia tells me there are no fewer than 21 Athens in America. The phrase “the Athens of America,” while poetic, is alarmingly nonspecific.

Does any of this apply to SoHo? That is, SoHo, the neighborhood in New + “York”. Was it a genuinely new construction? Or a back reference to Soho in London? This topic is treated by the always entertaining 99 Percent Invisible: The SoHo Effect. It appears to be a new construction originating with an urban planner named Chester Rapkin. But I’d bet a lot of money that it caught on because people were familiar with the London neighborhood of the same name. Whether intentional or not, it looks like a case of incidental nominal legitimization.

This brings us to one of the more interesting things about word and phrase etymology. Naming is thermodynamic. It occurs, if it occurs at all, in many brains. And each brain has its own reason for swallowing and digesting the name it has been fed. For instance, in researching the many Berlins of America, I came across a marvelous example of ambiguous nomenclature. Of the two founders of Berlin, Ohio, one came from Berlin, Germany, and another came from Berlin, Pennsylvania. What city gave Berlin, Ohio its name? Depends on who you ask. Both are true. They probably only agreed because they disagreed. This sort of thing happens all the time.

Naming is a funny business. You can sometimes work out how a name got started, but you can never say for certain why it spread.