The tricky business of unblocking your brain

Don’t read this if you’ve got an aneurysm.

Spend 24 hours in the company of a couple of hundred brain surgeons and you’d have a sense of unease too. I’m at a conference where “minimally invasive neurological therapies” are being discussed. My take-home message? No one knows anything for sure. Until it’s too late, that is.

Not that they aren’t good at their job – they’re the best in the world at getting at blockages and other problems inside your brain. But they are here to discuss the things they don’t know. And those are conversations you’d rather not overhear.

The typical presentation goes like this. “So, we went to perform an angioplasty on patient A, who was suffering from acutely reduced vision” (I may be paraphrasing badly). “Here’s the imaging.”

On the screen appears a picture of some loopy, tangled-looking blood vessels. There are murmurs and sharp intakes of breath. A voice just behind me mutters “ay-ay-ay”.

I have no idea what I’m looking at. I’m only here to give a talk about more general issues in scientific research. But I have that sinking feeling, like in the first five minutes of an episode of Casualty, that something bad is about to happen.

“I’d like to know: what would you have done?” the presenter asks. She offers two options. The room votes. The split is even, an observation that makes me hugely uncomfortable. There is no consensus. Why is there no consensus? Surely there’s a right thing to do in any situation? The presenter goes on to explain what she did. There is another round of murmuring in the room. Clearly, many people – approximately half – think this was a very bad idea.

The next presenter describes a surgery that started to go wrong 4 hours into an operation. He talks like it’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “What do you think?” he asks the audience. “Shall I go on or stop now?” A voice from the back shouts, “No, no, no. Stop. You have to stop!”

He did go on, as it happened. He describes how the procedure progressed, blow by blow. “No, no, don’t do that!” comes an anguished shout, like this is Surgery Live. It’s not: this all happened last year. “Yeah,” the presenter mutters. “Thanks, I know that now.”

The next presentation ends with, “Well, I’ll never do that again.” Then comes another: “So, I’d like your opinions – should I treat this? If so, how?” The audience is calling out answers like a classroom full of show-offs. The session chair asks for calm.

Not all the answers are helpful. “If you get bleeding there, that’s going to be catastrophic.” The presenter furrows his brow. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I’m asking.”

This one is not a done deal, as it turns out. “Thanks,” the presenter says as the deluge of conflicting answers abates. “I’m due to see her again in ten days, so that’s really helpful.”

Here’s hoping she’s not reading this.

 

A patient prepped for surgery. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”