The Boy Who Thought He Caused 9/11

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On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a British boy who had been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – a form of anxiety which is only relieved by performing certain repetitive actions – was walking home, while engaging in one of his compulsive rituals. This one made him step on specific white markings on the street, but that day he accidentally missed one. Shortly after, when news of the atrocities from the US reached him, he became convinced that he was the cause of the attacks, because he did not step on that particular white mark. The boy thought he was to blame for 9/11.

Consumed with guilt, he behaved erratically for days – he also had Tourette’s –  and had to be persuaded by his therapists that the time difference between the UK and the US meant he had missed his ritual after the attacks happened, so he wasn’t responsible.

People who suffer from OCD often believe that missing their rituals might cause terrible harm, to themselves or others. But it was the first time an OCD patient thought he had caused a terrorist attack. The fear can take many forms and can even be externalized on various objects, like in the curious case of a patient who freaked out whenever he saw a particular type of car in the street, an El Camino.

A malfunctioning brain can create very powerful delusions: Capgras Syndrome is a rare condition – only about one hundred accounts exist – in which a person believes that their spouse, friend, parent or other family member has been replaced by an identical looking impostor. A similar condition, the Fregoli delusion, named after an Italian quick-change artist, has patients think that different people are in fact a single person who keeps changing appearance to torment them.

They both originate from a problem with face recognition, often due to illness or brain damage. The brain can no longer recognize familiar faces, and while attempting to make sense of them, it produces what psychologists call a confabulation, an unintentional lie that rings true to no one but the person who creates it.

This sort of mental short-circuit can unfortunately apply to one’s own body as well. BIID, or Body Integrity Identity Disorder, is a neurological failing that brings patients to think that a limb in their body no longer belongs to them: they want it gone, and strongly desire to become amputees. They start to behave like amputees, and will often gruesomely attempt to get rid of the alien body part.

The cause of this condition is unknown, but it is often associated with apothemnophilia, a form of sexual arousal based on one’s image as an amputee. The list of peculiar sexual preferences connected to mental illness is a long one, but I’ve always been particularly struck by Object Sexuality, by which people become affectionate to things rather than persons.

One American woman, Erika Eiffel, is an advocate for this very persuasion: she has been in love with the Berlin Wall for over twenty years. We’re not talking about architectural interest or a passion for aesthetics, but feelings of true love: she even slept with a miniature portion of the wall, cuddling it and treating it as her boyfriend. In 2004, she fell in love with the Eiffel Tower, which she famously “married” in a ceremony in 2007, hence her name (she was born Erika LaBrie). She received significant media attention and she is the subject of a book and a musical theatre production.

What I find fascinating about mental disorders is that they almost always abide by our need for a narrative. All brains, including healthy ones, prefer to receive information in the form of a story: it’s called narrative bias. We often use narrative to make sense of what happens to us, finding connections between events even if there are none. A damaged brain will not stop doing so, and will happily take the narrative to grotesque extremes. That is why, at times, the only way to “cure” a patient is to operate inside their own narrative. Philosopher Alain de Botton, in this almost certainly apocryphal tale, beautifully captures this:

“Medical history tells us of the case of a man living under the peculiar delusion that he was a fried egg. Quite how or when this idea had entered his head, no one knew, but he now refused to sit down anywhere for fear that he would “break himself” and “spill the yolk.” His doctors tried sedatives and other drugs to appease his fears, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, one of them made the effort to enter the mind of the deluded patient and suggested he should carry a piece of toast with him at all times, which he could place on any chair he wished to sit on, and hence protect himself from spillage. From then on, the deluded man was never seen without a piece of toast handy and was able to continue a more or less normal existence.”

(From Essays In Love, by Alain de Botton)

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The Plastic Brain of Taxi Drivers

What’s special about London taxi drivers? They have enlarged brains.

They’re not mutants. If you want to become a cabbie in London, you have to undergo a daunting test called The Knowledge. To pass, you must be able to plot the shortest route between any two of the city’s 25,000 streets, and point out any relevant landmark along the way (there are about 20,000 in all). Preparing for this mind-boggling endeavor takes three to four years, spent mostly driving around in a scooter with a map placed on the handlebars – remember that if you spot one in the city, it makes for a good story.

Fewer than 35 percent of applicants are granted a license, not surprisingly. What’s surprising is that London cabbies are responsible for disproving one of the longest-standing foundations of neuroscience: that the brain, unlike other organs, stops growing shortly after childhood and is incapable of spawning new neurons. A study conducted on 79 training cabbies had them undergo an MRI scan after three years of learning London topography. Their posterior hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with spatial navigation, was found to have acquired additional grey matter: it was, on average, 7 percent larger than before the training.

This phenomenon, the brain’s ability to rearrange itself and change its physical structure, is called neuroplasticity. It’s one of many reminders of how little we know about the human brain. Recent research from Sweden shows that this growth is linked to specific types of activity. This time, MRI scanners were used on interpreters learning a new language from scratch and comparing them to cognitive science students: while organs in the control group remained unchanged, over just three months the interpreters showed growth in the hippocampus (again) and in the cerebral cortex, which is quite understandably involved with language. This confirms previous research that revealed how bilingual children have superior brain functionality in some areas, and how being bilingual can delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks. But when it comes to the brain, not everything has a tangible effect. What about those Brain Training games, then? Nintendo and other companies maintain that by playing them regularly you can “keep your brain young”, citing dubious research. It’s a good marketing effort and by no means the worse kind of manipulation of science, but sadly it is not true. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons dismiss the issue in their brilliant book, The Invisible Gorilla: «If you think that doing Sudoku will keep your mind sharp and help you avoid misplacing your keys or forgetting to take your medicine, you’re likely succumbing to the illusion of potential. Unfortunately, people who do more crosswords decline mentally at the same rate as those who do fewer crosswords. Practice improves specific skills, not general abilities».

In other words, what you get by playing Brain Training is that you get better at Brain Training. But there is a very easy way to improve your mental abilities, and it’s got nothing to do with puzzles. It’s called exercise. Engaging in physical activity increases production of a protein that keeps nerve cells healthy, giving you better mental skills. This has been proven by different studies on humans and rats, as you can read in this New York Times article, opened by a very odd illustration.

For both rodents and men, walking or running for just a few hours a week improves cognitive functions and, of course, physical fitness. And people who exercise actually have larger brains in later life. On the other hand, data reveals that sitting for more than three hours a day can shorten your life span by as much as two years. So, say goodbye to “Dr Kawashima” and get out of that chair. Your brain will be grateful.