Where do you get all your bad ideas?

While I was in Albuquerque I had the chance to chat with Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico.  One of his research interests is creativity. So, OK, the conversation got a bit off-track, and we ended up talking about foot fetishes.  He brought it up!  Anyway, Rex pointed me to this entertaining blog post about V. S. Ramachandran, the prolific Indian neuroscientist (he came up with the idea of the mirror box for treating phantom limb pain, which was the basis of a particularly bizarre episode of “House”.) Ramachandran had an idea about foot fetishes, based on the work of Penfield and Jasper, who did the amazing “awake craniotomies” that allowed them to map the regions of the brain associated with different kinds of functioning. Jung explains:

Penfield and Jasper wrote a book in 1954 entitled Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain in which they describe surgeries performed on some 750 patients undergoing awake craniotomy. Both males and females were studied, although only about 10 percent were female. With respect to the genitals, Penfield and Jasper state (page 69), “The representation of genitalia is only sensory and not motor.” Second, and importantly, they state, “Its relationship to foot is not altogether clear,” although they place the genitalia next to the foot on the sensory map (see above). Well there’s the rub …

Their sensory map looks like this:

On the basis of this evidence, Ramachandran came up with theidea that maybe the proximity of the genital processing right next to the foot and toe processing, plus a little miswiring, would lead to foot fetishes.  Well, OK….

Turns out that Penfield and Jasper’s data wasn’t all that strong about the position of the genital processing, and in reality it’s probably right where it belongs, under the trunk.  So?

So, what does it all mean for 1) genitals, 2) the brain, 3) Penfield, and 4) Ramachandran? With respect to the genitals, they look to be where they are supposed to be in the brain, and the cartoon of the little man should likely be updated so that he is not tripping over his junk. Second, the brain appears to be organized in a somatotopical manner (that means it roughly maps to the body in terms of location and importance of function). Third, Penfield and Jasper (among others) were studying people with epilepsy, tumors, and any number of other brain disorders, and some miswiring might be garbling the data, along with the highly possible reticence on the part of either the good doctors or patients to map or report stimulation regarding the genitalia as compared to ANY other sensory or motor function. And finally, Ramachandran remains a genius. He was likely wrong on this front, but he has brilliantly demonstrated a key feature of highly creative individuals: they put out a lot of ideas. Not all of them are right, but some might lead to a “novel and useful” treatment for phantom limb or a theory of synesthesia (the latter of which is well supported by “miswiring” data). Keep it sexy, Dr. R. …

This seems right to me.  To be creative, you need lots of ideas, but not all of them are going to be good ones.  The trick is to figure out which ones are worth spending your time and energy on.  I have pages and pages of notes about the novel I’m currently working on, and it is entertaining and rather distressing to read through these notes and look at all the bad ideas I’ve come up with.  How do I know if the good ones are ending up in the actual novel?  I’m relying on my friends to tell me.  If I get it wrong, it’s all their fault.

1 thought on “Where do you get all your bad ideas?

  1. You were on the right track when you pointed out that Ramachandran’s theory about foot fetishes is, well, dodgy. You then make the argument that Ramachandran must be brilliant because he “demonstrates a key feature of highly creative individuals: they put out a lot of ideas.” Unfortunately most of Ramachandran’s theories are just as dodgy. If you begin to read research papers or talk to neuroscientists you will quickly discover that most do not take him seriously.

    Contrary to the legend, Ramachandran did not make any breakthrough discoveries about phantom limbs, or Capgras syndome, or autism. However, in his books he does manage to make it look as though he was responsible for pioneering work of other scientists.For example, many people believe that he discovered that there is a connection between cortical reorganization and phantom limb pain. In fact, it was Herta Flor (University of Heidelberg) who discovered maladaptive plasticity, not Ramachandran. In his TED talks Ramachandran states that he was the first person to realize that Caprgas syndrome is the result of a neurological disconnection between the areas of the brain that are responsible for facial recognition and emotional imprinting. This is not true. H.D. Ellis and Andy Young had published a seminal paper seven years before Ramachandran published a paper concerning Capgras.

    However I will grant that Ramachandran has taken his freewheeling creativity into the realm of the surreal. Read up on his testimony at the trial of Lisa Montgomery in 2007. He presented himself to the jury as an expert on pseudocyesis (false pregnancy) and argued that Lisa Mongomery was not responsible for the gruesome murder of Bobby Joe Stinnett. Or look up his claim (in The Tell-Tale Brain) that there are men in lamaze classes who experience the symptoms of false pregnancy because their mirror neuron systems are over producing empathy hormones! (Yes, this claim is right there in black and white.)

    And last but not least, there is no consensus about the effectiveness of mirror therapy. The research that has been done has produced very mixed results.


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