Men read maps better, but women read emotions — so say brain scientists. Is the secret of human behaviour inside our skulls?
Can neuroscience explain why Timandra throws like a girl but thinks like a bloke? You’ll never look at your anterior cingulate cortex the same way again. Or a map.
‘effortlessly engaging and a pleasure to watch’ ★★★★ Three Weeks
‘science is now sexy... witty... and her comic timing is excellent’ ★★★★ Broadway Baby
‘as spectacularly entertaining exercise for the brain, it’s a winner’ ★★★★ Theatre Bath
‘a charismatic one-and-a-half-hour multimedia extravaganza... Brain-teasingly enjoyable’ Brighton Argus
‘Harkness has a deadly wit’ Scotsman
Your Days Are Numbered: ‘exponentially funny’ ★★★★ ThreeWeeks
‘Fun and thought-provoking’ ★★★★ Chortle.co.uk
Humans V Nature: ‘entertaining and unique’ ★★★★ ThreeWeeks
‘Lots of funnies’ ★★★★ SGFringe.com
Last year Timandra brought Humans V Nature: Engineering FTW! to the Fringe with Matt Parker & support from the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Earlier in 2012 she & Matt toured Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death, also funded by the Wellcome Trust. YDAN was also seen at Adelaide Fringe & Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2012 following a very successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010.
She also worked with Matt to make a spinoff film as part of Worldbytes’ Wellcome-Trust-funded biomedical series of films.
Her early performance experience was in clowning and visual theatre, after training at the Circus Space in London and in Bristol. She then spent 5 years in solo stand up comedy after running away from the circus. In 2001 she formed The Comedy Research Project, a science comedy double act with comedian/scientist Dr. Helen Pilcher. With physiologist Dr. Harry Witchel she took 2 comedy science shows, The Science of Superheroes & Dr Witchel’s Seven Rules of dating, to Pittsburgh and St. Louis, USA. Other recent comedy science performance includes live gameshows & “disturbing cabaret” Science Burlesque.
Timandra wrote and directed two short films, Reported Missing and Maneater. With Linda Cotterill she wrote a comedy, No Future in Eternity, broadcast twice on BBC Radio 4 after a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That featured an astronomer as romantic hero, long before Brian Cox won the nation’s heart.
She can occasionally be heard on BBC Radio 4, including psychology series The Human Zoo.
Dr Martin Coath is a scientist, science communicator, and musician. At the moment he splits his efforts between research and creating opportunities, for himself and others, to get out of the lab and engage everybody in the wider debate about the place of science in society. He works both as a freelance and at the Cognition Institute, Plymouth University.
His recent research has concentrated on building computer models of how we learn to make sense of the world through our senses. The aim of this is to make progress in the understanding of the brain and to design artificial systems that adapt to, and learn from the world by seeing and hearing. This might sound a bit like a branch of robotics, or artificial intelligence, and this is partly true. However, because the models are limited to implementing ways a living organism might do these things, these models are principally designed to tell us something about the way brains might work. This might more accurately be called “Neuromorphic Engineering”.
Alongside his research Martin has been developing public engagement and outreach activities successfully for more than 20 years. He has a track record of engaging with a wide cross section of people, and in the media, and in schools. He is an award winning STEM ambassador; a featured researcher for the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement; twice winner of the Wellcome Trust funded “I’m a Scientist ... Get Me Out Of Here” (on-line and live event); Famelab Finalist 2007, and he makes regular appearances at science festivals, in schools, in the media (including twice on BBC Radio 4 “The Material World”), and at a variety of other public events. His highly successful educational event ‘The Brain Game’ has featured at London Science Museum, Times Cheltenham Science Festival and Cardiff Science Festival, as well as at many schools.
Delyth is Co-Artistic Director of Io Theatre Company and has co-created and directed their productions of The Snow Spider (Ovalhouse, London – set to tour 2013/14), Tony Blair - The Musical (Gilded Balloon and Tour), The Rise and Fall of Deon Vonniget (Canal Cafe Theatre), Watford Palace Theatre’s production of Lysistrata, Judgment (Conway Hall) and Graceland Asleep on the Wind (Hen and Chickens).
Delyth studied English at Cambridge University. She went on to work with John Barton at the Royal Shakespeare, and has built a varied career as a theatre director. Current directing work includes: Sarah Campbell: Isn’t This Fun??? (Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2013) The Historians (for Hot Ice Theatre Company – winner of Fringe Guru Award 2011 – currently touring regionally in the UK), Dreams to Her Father – currently in development with Teasel Theatre Company with the support of Bristol Old Vic and Birmingham Mac. Recent freelance directing credits include Dark Matters (Toured science festivals across the UK in 2012), I’ll Show You Mine (Lion and Unicorn, London); Seminar (Pleasance, Edinburgh) The Baby Diary (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh).
Other directing credits include: 27 Up (The Hive, Edinburgh), The Umbrella Birds: WC (Underbelly, Edinburgh and Arts Depot, London), The Cheese and Pineapple Club (Underbelly, Edinburgh), Bea (Hen and Chickens).
In addition to directing Delyth is experienced as a dramaturg on existing scripts, has adapted a novel for the stage, and is a confident deviser of new work. She has also worked extensively as an Associate and Assistant Director in London and regionally and is an experienced workshop leader for groups of all ages.
The brain is an organ made up of cells; in many ways just like any other tissue or organ in the body is made up of specialized cells. The heart is composed of different kinds of specialized heart cells that are found nowhere else in the body, and so it is with the brain.
The most famous types of brain cell are the neurons which differ from most other cells in the body in that they send out projections to meet each other to form a complicated network capable of fast and flexible communication.
For a long time people thought that the cells of the brain (and the rest of the nervous system) were all joined up in a huge net (the so-called reticular hypothesis), but towards the end of the 19th century it became clear that they don't actually join up, and that each neuron was a "fully autonomous physiological canton" (Cajal, 1888). Thus was born the neuron hypothesis.
(We will ignore, for the moment, all brain cells that are not neurons - although it turns out that this is also a mistake.)
So, the neuron gathers information from its surroundings through thin thread-like projections called dendrites. The usually, slightly thicker projections that carry the results of the neuronal activity away (the output of the neuron) are called axons. Dendrites and axons are usually, but not always, on opposite sides of the main body of the cell which is the 'blob' in the middle.
The most obvious sort of activity that is carried away from the neuron by the axon is the action potential, which is a spike of electrochemical activity. These spikes, or clicks, are the usual form in which information is encoded and moved around the brain.
In the places where an outgoing axon gets close to, but never quite touches, a receiving dendrite, there is a special structure that controls the passage of information across the gap, or cleft, called the synapse.
You won't find this in any textbook, but my money, and all the smart money is on the synapse (which is not yet that well understood) being the key to much of the really clever stuff that happens in the brain.
So, as was mentioned in Chapter 1, neurons pick up the pulses or spikes of activity that travel away down the axons of its neighbouring neurons. This activity jumps the gap at the synapse on to the dendrites of the receiving neuron. The activity the neuron picks up can either be excitatory (making it more likely to generate its own spike) or inhibitory, but if there is enough excitatory activity the neuron responds by generating a spike of its own that travels away down its own axon.
The spikes are like Mexican waves of chemicals moving in and out across the walls of the axon which is hollow. The atoms that move in the wave all carry an electrical charge, so the propagating wave is, in some ways, like an electrical current in a wire. However this analogy can be pushed too far. The brain is not an electrical device in the usual sense (which would involve electrons moving through a solid or a gas) the brain is a liquid phase machine and the spikes are movements of charged atoms - or ions as they are known.
The only way to detect an individual spike in an individual neuron, is stick a glass needle into the brain and get it as close to the neuron as possible. This is fraught with difficulty and interpretation of the results can be very tricky.
However, groups of neurons tend to fire more or less at the same time, and the axons of the group are, more or less, all pointing in the same direction in many cases. The total resulting current is large enough to be detected by placing coils on the scalp. This technique is known as EEG (electroencephalography). The EEG is incredibly useful because it records exactly when the activity happens but, frustratingly, it is very difficult to pin down exactly where the signal came from - only a very rough answer is usually possible. And in any case this technique is limited to activity that is near the skull (mostly the outside 4mm or so of the brain known as the cortex).
If something causes the brain to generate more spiking activity than usual, then, between 2 and 6 seconds later, there is a corresponding increase in blood flow in the area of activity. Although this increase in blood flow is generated way after the event, doesn't directly measure the activity of the neuron, and contains no fine timing detail, it does have the the huge advantage of being easy to locate using a technique known as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
So we have established that the brain is a network of cells, which almost (but not quite) touch each other, which send out pulses of electrochemical activity if there is enough of the right kind of activity around them, and that they have special structures called synapses to manage the communication between them.
Synapses are where the action truly is, and any discussion of how the brain works has to have them at its heart. It is useful to get a primitive idea of what they do split up into three time scales:
On the very short time scale (thousandths of a second), activity in the synapses is dominated by neurotransmitters. These these are chemicals that are produced inside the neurons and are responsible for carrying the wave of activity over the the synaptic cleft to the next neuron. These chemicals are not very 'famous' so we don't really need to know what they are called at this stage. They are either excitatory - that is they increase the likelihood that the post-synaptic neuron will fire - or they are inhibitory. They are released only when the spike reaches the synapse.
On a longer time scale (seconds to hours or even days), the behaviour of the synapses is changed by another, much more famous, group of chemicals called neuromodulators. These are not produced in the synapses they affect, but are usually made in other parts of the brain.
Many neuromodulators are well known because they are linked in the popular imagination to particular behaviours: adrenaline (fight and flight), dopamine (reward and pleasure), histamine (allergic reactions), oxytocin (love and bonding), serotonin (happiness!), melatonin (sleep cycles), and many, many others.
In reality, things are much more complicated than this picture (one modulator - one behaviour) suggests! Things are further complicated by the fact that many neuromodulators are also neurotransmitters (although not necessarily in the brain) and many of them are hormones with wide-ranging effects apart from their effects on synapses. A chemical like oestrogen for example (slightly controversial to include this as a neuromodulator - but justified I think) has hundreds of well-documented effects on pretty much every part of the body.
On the longest time scale (hours, and days, and months), synapses actually appear and disappear, are strengthened and weakened, grow and shrink. (And there may be hundreds of other behaviours yet to be documented.) This is controlled by a vast array of factors including the neuromodulators, genetics and epigenetic control. This is only just beginning to be documented, and is certainly not well understood. The longer ("developmental" some might say) time scale is more or less undiscovered country for neuroscientists at a cellular level, and patterns that emerge on this time scale are still something of a mystery.
People often talk about grey matter and white matter without making it clear what they mean; even a fictional character like Hercule Poirot, for example, makes references to his 'little grey cells'. The brain can be usefully divided into areas where the connections are very dense and so short that speed isn't much of an issue (grey matter); and other areas where the connections are less dense, but faster, and often cover longer distances, called the white matter.
A dead brain does look sort of grey and white in different areas. A living brain is mostly browny-pink, because it is well supplied with blood vessels, while the grey matter is slightly darker (browner).
The white matter looks white (or paler) because it is high in fat. The brain uses fat to surround and insulate the connections, to stop spikes from 'leaking away' as they travel to the synapses. So areas of the brain responsible for the long-range connections have very fatty axons, and these regions appear paler. And in contrast, areas containing only very short-range connections, which need very little fat, appear darker or grey.
To complete the picture there is a small amount of black matter which is a distinct area of the brain, deep inside, which appears darker than the grey matter because the cells have pigment in them. This area is always referred to by its Latin designation substantia nigra - in contrast to grey and white matter which are hardly ever called substantia grisea and substantia alba.
Oh yes, and there is a blue bit. The locus coeruleus. I have never seen one but apparently it looks a bit blue.
For a few centuries people have cut brains up and named the various lumps, bumps, holes, and sheets that they found. This could be likened to early astronomy. Let us call this desire to name bits of the brain cerebonomy, just to have the joy of coining a new word! Cerebonomy is simply naming the brain parts, like the naming of stars, without any reference to what a star is or why it shines. More recently, with the aid of microscopes, researchers have been able to discern a multitude of layers, regions and divisions within each lump or bump that had previously been given a name. Each layer and region is then also given a name. This makes the simple profusion of names one of the chief obstacles to reading brain-related literature, and there is no way I can think of to simplify things.
Here are some bits you should know in a simple glossary.
These are the major divisions of the brain - not really like the divisions of Gaul, more like the continents of the globe. Like the continents there aren't too many of them!
If you’re interested in the brain science of gender difference, here are some pointers to finding out more than we can fit in a hour-long show.
Dr Ellie Lee, Dr Maurizio Meloni, Professor Dick Swaab, Ann Moir
The Institute of Ideas
Dr Catharine Cross, University of St Andrews
One KX, Cockpit Theatre
Dr Stuart Derbyshire, University of Singapore
David Spiegelhalter & Michael Blastland, authors of The Norm Chronicles
Craig Fairnington, Anne Gammon