4.0372 Memory, Information, Handedness, &c. (1/122)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 7 Aug 90 21:01:24 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0372. Tuesday, 7 Aug 1990.

Date: Tue, 7 Aug 1990 11:59:31 GMT+0400
From: LBJUDY@VMSA.technion.ac.il
Subject: 4.0354: Memory, information, gender and handedness

This is going to be a long note. Perhaps all "pure" Humanists (i.e.
those uninterested in brain research!) had better delete it now so as to
save feeling swindled afterwards.

1) Douglas de Lacey's comments on music: I agree you can't conclude the
name is "the key" on the basis of an experimental sample of one (me). I
did hypothesize that, in the particular case I discussed and presumably
others like it (assuming I'm not unique helps to keep me sane), the name
is "the key" to all the linguistic data associated with the graphical --
the face. If the idea of a key is valid, you can then start asking
whether this organization of data works also for other types of stored
information, e.g. music. Douglas's remark about the 1st versus 3rd line
of a tune suggests the key here would be the first line. But is that
the key to recalling everything you know about the music (title,
composer, date and everything else that finds its way onto the back of
record albums) or only to the tune itself? If only to the tune, what
links the tune and the linguistic information about it?

Can we widen this to other sense organs? If I taste something, do I
have to identify it as "sugar" before I remember its chemical structure
and what it does to my teeth? (Personally, I do.) Or in general terms,
how does a sensory stimulus -- a specific sight, sound, touch, taste,
smell -- trigger access to the data stored in the brain concerning the
object from which the stimulus originated?

Incidentally -- but related -- a lot of people, including myself, seem
to get an almost emotional satisfaction from knowing the name of
something: a bird, flower, insect, piece of music, whatever. On seeing
one they can't identify, those who take any interest in it are likely to
ask "what is it?", i.e., what's it's NAME? And upon being told, get a
peculiar sense of satisfaction, as if they now "know" or "know something
about" the object, when in fact they don't really know anything more
about it than they did before. I think of all those avid gardeners who
so evidently enjoy knowing the name of every plant, ditto ornithologists
for birds, etc. But why is this? Why the sense of satisfaction? Is it
(wild hypothesis only!) that knowing the name enables us to prepare the
"FAT entry" -- we now have a place to park, and a way of finding,
anything else we may learn about the object, thus a way of organizing
future experience? Does this connect with the fact that, if you're in no
way interested in the object (i.e. are unlikely to need to store
information about it in memory) you couldn't care less whether you know
its name or not? You don't need the name to identify the object, upon
re-seeing one, as the same visual memories cannot REMEMBER the object,
i.e. recall a mental picture of it, without the name.

Does anyone else (except me) find him/herself giving private names to
unknown trees, birds etc. that they like but don't know the names of?
It happens quite unconsciously. You see a tree afire with red flowers
and your mind says "that's a flame-tree". Why? One of the first things
Adam did was to name all the animals, which suggests, again, that I'm
not unique.

2) Mary Dee Harris's remarks on left-handed people being better at
scientific and mathematical work: the following ideas are taken from, or
germinated by, a book on intelligence and giftedness; one of those that
trickle through my fingers from time to time here at the library. (I
can provide the reference if anyone's interested -- I don't have it with
me). It reported a wide array of research and made two points about
left-handedness that seem relevant to this discussion:

a) there is no difference between the AVERAGE intelligence of lefties and
righties. BUT the distribution of IQ in lefties isn't the expected bell
curve, it's more like a double peak, one below and one above average.
This is because a significant percentage of left-handed people are
left-handed because of neurological damage to the left side of the
brain, which prevented it from becoming dominant. An additional result
of this same brain damage is that the person usually has below-average
IQ. The conclusion is that the rest of the lefties, those with no
neurological damage, are, as a group, of above average IQ (since the
average of all lefties is the same ca. 100 as that of the population as
a whole). The authors suspect that this may help explain the
over-representation of lefties which has been found in all academic
fields, not just science and math (they're talking, if I remember
rightly, about 15-20% versus 9.4% lefties in the general population of
the U.S.)

b) They also found that among children with a very high IQ (140 plus)
which expressed itself as a marked specialization for language, 75% were
short-sighted (childhool myopia) and a significant percentage, I forget
how many, had hayfever-type allergies. The latter indicates, they
claim, the mis-processing of olfactory information -- particles which
usually only trigger the sense of smell are misinterpreted as "foreign
invaders", triggering an immune response. Many of the subjects also had
a very bad sense of smell, i.e. they were even worse than most humans at
perceiving and identifying scents. cells are needed to process
linguistic data than exist in the brain area usually devoted to
linguistic processing, and that cells are pressed into service from
adjacent areas -- which are those that usually handle vision and smell.
This results in less processing power for these functions, with the
observed results.

What they didn't say is whether (assuming their hypothesis to be true)
the myopic/allergic child geniuses were lefties or righties. One could
suggest that if lefties are more likely to use the right side (in
addition to the left) for processing linguistic data, they may be less
prone to myopia or hayfever-type allergies resulting from such a "fight
over resources" than are righties, who don't have the same access to
processing space in the right brain and whose linguistic processing may
therefore be expected to overflow into adjacent areas of the left brain

3) Sheizaf Rafaeli on prosopagnosia: That's interesting too. Is it
purely a pathological condition, i.e. existing in an extreme form (you
can't put a name to your boss's face, perhaps not even to your
spouse's...?) or are there gradations? Meaning, is the case I described
(I can't put a name to a seldom-seen face, or to a well-known one that I
haven't seen for several years, unless of course I know whom I'm
expecting, as in the case of wedding guests, and can work out who it is
by a process of elimination) a mild example of something classifiable as
abnormal, or is it something that occurs in many people in milder or
worse forms and should therefore be regarded as an expectable quirk of
the human brain? (This does NOT mean, am I "normal" or not, for to tell
you the truth I am, thankfully, past the age when I could care how you
classify me. The question is, what turns a normal quirk of the human
brain into something that scientists give a long Greek name to and
classify as akin to a disease? Is one the high and one the low end of a
continuum, implying that prosopagnosia, for instance, is the high tip of
an iceberg? Or is prosopagnosia (and similar disorders) something that
you either have or you don't, and the milder inabilities to put names to
faces are a different phenomenon?

Judy Koren