Monthly Archives: October 2015

Low Carb High Fat Banting Diets And Appetite Regulation – A Research Area Of Complex Causation Appears To Have Brought Out A Veritable Mad Hatters Tea Party Ensemble

Perhaps one of the astonishing things I have read in my career to date was a recent Tweet apparently written by my own previous lab boss of University of Cape Town days, now many years ago, Professor Tim Noakes. The text of this tweet included ‘Hitler was vegetarian, Wellington (Beef), Napoleon insulin resistant – Did LCHF determine future of Europe’. Tim has, in the last few years, endorsed the Low Carb / High Fat (LCHF) ‘Banting’ Diet as the salvation and ‘holy grail’ of healthy living and longevity, and appears to have recommended that everyone from athletes to children should follow the diet. As part of this diet, if I have heard / read him correctly, sugar (carbohydrate) is the ‘great evil’ and has an addictive capacity, our ancestors lived on a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates and were as a result, according to Tim, more healthy than us contemporary folk, and our current diabetes and obesity epidemics are linked to an increase intake of sugar (but not fats, proteins or simply an absolute increase in caloric intake / portion size) in the last few decades, related to a variety of factors. All this has been astonishing to me, given that for many years when I worked in Tim’s lab, he was a strong proponent of carbohydrates / sugars as the ‘ultimate fuel source’ and wrote extensively on this, and we did a number of trials examining the potential benefits of carbohydrates which were funded by sugar / carbohydrate producing companies. While anyone can have a paradigm shift, this is one of great proportions, and given that I worked closely with Tim for a number of years (we have co-authored more than 50 research papers together, mostly in the field of activity regulation mechanisms), I have found this one, and some of the statements like in the Tweet above, to be, put conservatively, astonishing. So perhaps it would be interesting to look at some of the points raised by the folk that champion the LCHF diet and whether they have any veracity.

Firstly, one of the basic tenets of the diet is that our ancestors in pre-historic times used to use a LCHF diet and were as a result healthier because of it. Of course it is almost impossible to say with any clarity what folk ate beyond a few generations back, given that we have to rely in the period since writing started on folks written observations of what they ate, and before that, on absolutely no empirical evidence at all, apart from sociological speculation. The obvious counter-argument is that the life span has increased dramatically in the last few centuries, so while mortality rates are always multifactorial, to say that a diet used in the ancient past was beneficial is clearly difficult to accept when folk died so much younger than they did today, or that they were more healthy or lean in pre-historic days. As pointed out by Professor Johan Koeslag in my medical training days, based on the figurine the Venus of Willendorf, created in 24000-22000 BC, which depicted a female who was obese, it is as likely that folk back then were obese as it could be that they were thin. But the point is that to make any argument based on hypotheses of what was done in ancient times is specious, as we just cannot tell with any certainty what folk ate then, and it is likely that folk in ancient times ate whatever they could find, whether it was animal or plant based, in order to survive.

Based on this ‘caveman’ ideal, as nebulous as it is, the LCHF proponents have suggested that it is more ‘natural’ for the body to ‘run’ on a low carbohydrate diet, and Tim has suggested that athletes will perform better on a LCHF diet. But perhaps one of the best studies that would negate this concept was performed by my old friend and colleague, Dr Julia Goedecke, of which both Tim and I were co-authors. Julia looked at what fuels folk’s metabolism naturally ‘burnt’ as part of their metabolic profile, and found that there were some folk who were preferential ‘fat burners’ (and would perhaps do well on a high fat diet), some who were preferential ‘carbohydrate burners’ (and would perhaps do best on a high carbohydrate diet) but the large majority of folks were ‘in between’, and burnt both carbohydrates and fats as their selected fuel. If you are a ‘fat burner’ and ate carbohydrates, you may run into ‘trouble’, as equally if you are a ‘carbohdyrate burner’ and ate fats you may run into trouble similarly, but again, most folk ‘burn’ a combination of both, and the obvious inference would be that most folk would do best on a balanced diet (and of course without huge lifelong cohort studies one cannot say what ‘trouble’ either group will run into health-wise without such data).

It has also been suggested by Tim and the LCHF proponents that sugars / carbohydrates are highly addictive, and it is specifically the ingestion of this particular food source that has led to increase levels of obesity and health disorders such as type 2 diabetes in the last few decades. But, absolute caloric intake has increased over the last few decades, so a simple increase in portion sizes and overall food ingestion should surely be a prime suspect in the increase levels of obesity described. It’s likely also that high fat foods are also potentially as ‘addictive’ as sugars / carbohydrates are, if they are indeed such, and folk may also be as likely to be addicted to eating per se, rather than specifically addicted to one food type of the food they eat. The causes of an increase in appetite and the sensation of hunger is an incredibly complex field – a hundred years ago it was apparently suggested that when the walls of an empty stomach rub against each other, it causes the sensation of hunger to be stimulated. But, we have more understanding now of these processes (though still a lot to learn), and the signals controlling hunger are incredibly complex, including hormone signallers arising from the gut (such as leptin and ghrelin) that go up to the brain (principally the hypothalamus) and which induce eating focussed behaviour and activity, and these are responsive to a wide variety of food types ingested. But even suggesting that one type of food and addiction to it is the cause of obesity is manifestly absurd, given how many other reasons could be suggested to be involved in eating patterns and food choices – for example the social aspect to eating food, the community habits of different populations of folk associated with eating patterns, and the psychological needs and issues associated with eating that go beyond simple fuel requirements and fuel dynamics, let alone genetics and innate predisposition to obesity and an obese somatotype some folk inherit from their parents. To note also that weight gain is not just related to single episodes of food ingestion, and some fantastic work from old colleagues from my time at Northumbria University, Dr Penny Rumbold, Dr Caroline Reynolds and Professor Emma Stevenson, amongst others, has shown that eating habits and weight gain are monitored and adjusted over long time periods in an incredibly complex way, by mechanisms that are not well understand, and it is in understanding these long term regulatory mechanisms that the changes in weight gain we see both in individuals and societies over time will surely be best understood, rather than ‘blaming’ one type of specific food group and its marketing to the public as a food type. As has been pointed out to me by my old (and much respected) academic ‘sparring partner’, Dr Samuele Marcora, both low carbohydrate and low fat diets can be successful in initiating weight loss – but equally, both types of diets are shown to be very difficult to maintain (as are all diets) – one so often ‘falls off’ diets because these inherent, complex food intake regulatory mechanisms are pretty ‘strong’ and perhaps difficult to change.

One of the most controversial issues is the effect of LCHF / Banting diets on either optimising or damaging health, and the jury is still very much out on this, and will be until we have big cohort long term morbidity and mortality statistics of folk on the LCHF diets for prolonged periods of time. There are a lot of studies that show that eating too many carbohydrates increases morbidity and has a negative effect on health. But there are also a lot of studies that show a high fat intake also has a negative effect on one’s health. Similarly for high caloric diets, and yet also similar increases in morbidity in diets deficient in one type of food type, or indeed, very low caloric diets. So it is also difficult to get a clear picture from scientific studies exactly what diet works or is optimal – my ‘gut feel’, to excuse the pun, would be that a prudent, balanced diet will surely offer the best alternative, though with the rider as evident from Julia’s study, that some folk will do better on a higher carbohydrate percentage diet, and some with a higher fat percentage diet. There are some other interesting confounding issues, such as what is known as the survival paradox, where folks with moderate levels of obesity do ‘better’ than their thinner counterparts in some age related disease mortality rates – particularly apparently in folks once they get over 70 years of age, when obesity may paradoxically become protective rather than pathological. A point has also been raised that there are increasing levels of people with appetite disorders and body image disorders in the last few decades too (such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and muscle dysmorphia, amongst others), and while the genesis of these appetite related disorders is also incredibly complex, diets such as LCHF, like many other very rigidly defined diets with specific eating requirements, may be propagating the capacity for such disorders to flourish, and indeed, a number of the ‘zealots’ who ‘convert’ to such diets and stick to them ‘through thick and thin’, may have appetite related disorders and are able to ‘use’ the camouflage of sticking to a LCHF diet to ‘mask’ a latent eating disorder. I can’t comment on the veracity of this suggestion, without seeing more research on it, but my ‘gut feel’ again is that there may be something like this.

Eating patterns and dietary choices, and their relationship to health, are surely some of the most complex and multifactorial areas of research that there can ever be in science. Because of this it is so hard to find and do good science that can give a clear indication of the ‘best’ diet or eating pattern for any one person, and most science in the field concentrates on one food type or one outcome of specific food type ingestion, and makes conclusions based on their results that are well intentioned, but always succumb to the problem of the complexity of the human and social dynamics associated with what and how much folk eat, that is perhaps impossible ever to reduce to a single laboratory or even field based experimental protocols. Because of this (and the fact that people need to eat on a daily basis to survive, so in effect everyone is a ‘captive audience’ for and to information), it is a field which is susceptible to anyone ‘getting up on a soap-box’ and putting their ‘five cents’ into the debate, and with modern communication methods available to us like blogs and the social media channels currently available, these opinions can spread rapidly and be taken as ‘gospel’ in a very short period of time. When someone, whom I respected so much as Tim Noakes, and with whom I have published so prodigiously together as a co-author in the past (though not in the field of LCHF / Banting diets), starts ‘banging off’ with tweets such as the above about the future of Europe potentially being determined by folk eating a LCHF diet or not (part of me is sure that Tim, if he did write this, perhaps did so in jest, or it was written as a ‘spoof’, as it is such a ‘left field’ post), I do wonder whether the field of nutrition, and those interested in it has become something of a ‘mad hatters tea party’ (though of course I have great respect for the large majority of my nutritionist colleagues). Surely like all diets, the LCHF / Banting diet will fade away as people find it hard to stick to it, as a new diet fad is announced and takes its place, and as science ‘chips’ away at some of the astonishing claims for its veracity made by its proponents. Surely in the end a balanced diet, like a balanced anything, will ultimately prevail as the diet ‘champion’. Until then, March Hare or Mad Hatter, whoever of you is pouring the tea, can I please have two spoons of sugar in my tea. If having such prevents me from ruling Europe, or dominating the world, so be it!

Rites of Passage Ceremonies, Initiation And Hazing – How And Why Did Something So Traditional Become So Often Criminal And Psychologically Damaging Acts

At a recent rural medicine conference I attended a few weeks ago, there was an interesting session on initiation practices in rural communities, and how doctors can optimally assist with attenuating the possibility of clinical consequences associated with them. I have been in discussion with the (great) senior management team of my current University regarding concerns I have about initiation ceremonies in the hostels and how they impact on the medical students we train, and how we can prevent them. I waved goodbye to my ten year old son last week when went off on his first night away from home on an official trip with his school class to a campsite, and felt a huge feeling of fear and concern for him that there would be the possibility of hazing occurring during it, and was relieved to hear afterwards that it was all great fun and well organized by the top-notch school he attends. All of these got me thinking about rites of passage, initiation ceremonies, and the horrific practice of hazing, which is astonishingly still ubiquitous whenever social groups form in any community, be they sports teams, gangs, military units, university residences, or school, amongst many others.

Initiation ceremonies have been present in societies since time immemorial, and are defined as a rite of passage marking entry into and acceptance into a group or society, or as a formal method of marking a transition into adulthood. Initiation ceremonies can be fairly informal – for example at the University I graduated as a medical doctor, a bagpiper traditionally ‘piped’ in the results that we had passed our exams, and a celebratory party occurred afterwards. When sailors or passengers on boats pass over the equator for their first time, they are given an initiation ceremony that welcomes them into the naval / sailing ‘community’ by doing so. They can also be very formal, such as occurs with the Christian Baptism, Jewish Bar Mitzvah or Tribal Manhood ceremonies.

Hazing, in contrast, is the contemporary definition of ‘organized bullying’ associated with initiation practices, and is defined as the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group. Hazing practices include: i) relatively (though to me awful anyway) ‘benign’ activities such as forcing initiates to march in line, perform long road trips, participate in physical activity, perform periods of silence or personal servitude to senior group members; ii) relatively ‘malignant’ activities such as the forced consumption of food or drink (including alcohol) or other noxious substances, acts of humiliation and degradation such as streaking or wearing humiliating apparel, or restrictions on eating and bathing, amongst others; and iii) frankly criminal activities such as branding, paddling, beating, or whipping – ie physical abuse – or forced sexual activity and abuse. Despite hazing being almost completely banned across the world, it is interesting to note that it is still extremely prevalent, with for example approximately one quarter of students in the USA acknowledging that they had been the victims of hazing, and a number of deaths reported each year caused specifically by hazing practices.

The reasons why folk agree to, or submit to, hazing practices when joining a university residence, or starting military training, or joining a sports team, are complex and still not well understood, as is indeed why ritual initiation practices are required in any shape or form. The classical reason for their occurrence is the team-building one, and that initiation practices, particularly those associated with hazing, create team identity and group cohesion by uniting folk undergoing hazing by the adversity associated with the process, and by successfully completing the ordeal imposed on them. In this theory, hazing causes firstly a separation phase, which removes the initiate from their previous social group due to the trials they go through challenging their old identity enough in order for them to ‘open up’ to change; then a transition phase, in which the initiate goes through the challenges and psychologically ‘fragments’ during the process; and finally the incorporation phase, when after completing the tasks, the initiate has a new identity which is synchronous / part of the group controlling the initiation process. But, a recent great study by Liesbeth Mann and colleagues has shown that the use of hazing, particularly when it targets individuals as compared to groups of initiates at one time, has a negative effect both on team function and identity, with most folk who go through such humiliating hazing practices feeling less, rather than more affiliation both to fellow initiates and the group that imposes them, even if they do not overtly ‘show’ this negative perception to the group. Even the military, which has long used hazing practices as team-building practice, has realized that hazing does not increase ‘esprit du corps’, and is working on alternate, less abusive methods of doing so.

So why do folk who join a new residence at a University, or sports team, submit to the process of hazing, rather than refusing to participate and reporting such practice immediately it happens. Perhaps most importantly, most young adults and adolescents feel the need to ‘belong’, and if hazing is the price to ‘pay’ to belong to a particular group, they will go through it – even if, for example when signing up for a residence at a University, hazing would not be expected to be an organized part of induction. Most folk of all ages have a strong drive for connection and self-preservation, and these ‘drives’ may contribute to an acceptance of hazing by those undergoing it. Conformity and obedience to authority may also be part of the reason – most folk submit to authority, and perceive that if senior / older folk are telling them to do something, it must associated with acceptable authority. There is also thought to be a fear of retribution and alienation associated with refusing to participate in such rituals, and the concept of the ‘silence’, where those folk who do complain are not supported with their complaint by other group victims of hazing, or by anyone in the group doing the hazing. Indeed, from a fraternity or sport team perspective, it may be the case that those that the complaints are taken too, such as residence heads or coaches, were previously part of the same fraternity or sports team, and turn a ‘blind eye’ or actively encourage such hazing behaviour, and ‘fob off’ those that complain, which is obviously devastating to those that do so. There is also the concept of cognitive dissonance that is posited as a reason why folks allow themselves to submit to hazing – they are aware that such behaviour is abusive and degrading, but in order to cope, ‘downplay’ the negative aspects of the hazing process they are undergoing by rationalizing that it is ‘not too bad’ or ‘good for team-building’, and thereby cope with something that is perceived to be unacceptable to them.

If it is hard to understand why folk accept the process of hazing happening to them, it is even harder to understand why folk involve themselves in organizing hazing or are part of groups that haze younger initiates. Some individuals who haze initiates surely have personality disorders such as sociopathy, and take pleasure from humiliating and / or abusing others. There is also the concept of abuse ‘cycles’, where folk who have been hazed in the past themselves, are at a greater risk of hazing others because of a misplaced desire for revenge – if the ‘system’ where the hazing takes place is perceived to be ‘too big’ to challenge, then some folk will ‘take it out’ on future initiates to ‘make up’ for what they suffered. There is also the concept of ‘groupthink’, which is defined as a process in groups where faulty decision making occurs as a results of the group dynamics, including pressure for unanimity and conformity, suppression of moral objections, and degradation of ‘outsiders’, which is what initiates would be perceived as being until they have gone through the rite of passage defined as being required by the group as necessary in order to be part of the group. So ‘groupthink’ would result in the condoning of hazing practice, though it is not clear if each person individually feels similar to the ‘group’ when alone as compared to when in the group environment. It is also suggested that those in groups involved in hazing initiates may do so due to fear of reprisal for not doing so, or a perceived lack of alternatives available to the hazing process for incorporating new folk into their ‘group’, whatever their group is.

The question arises why something so barbaric still is so ubiquitous, and what can be done to ‘stamp it out’. There is clearly something seemingly innate in most folk that leads them to believe that some ‘rite of passage’ is needed as part of the transition periods of life, particularly adolescence into adulthood, and is needed to ‘cement’ one’s place in a group, and indeed potentially create group dynamics. But clearly hazing is more than a ‘step too far’, and needs more active management than what appears to be the case up to this point in time in order to eradicate it. Researchers, law officials and leaders are beginning to realize that there needs to be a three-pronged approach to dealing with the problem of hazing. The first is that it needs to be absolutely spelt out that not only is hazing ‘not nice’ and not appropriate, but it is categorically illegal / criminal activity, and folk who organize hazing practice should be punished to levels commensurate with what type of hazing is performed, even if this is a custodial sentence. In other words, universities and sports teams (and indeed any group activity where hazing is a problem) need to work with law enforcement folk to be sure their codes of conduct and disciplinary procedures are not just ‘in house’ but carry the full weight of the law behind them – and those in positions of authority in any environment who support hazing need to be ‘rooted out’ by senior management / law enforcement folk. Second, there needs to be credible alternatives created to hazing, that are positive rather than damaging, and that allow a rite of passage to occur in new initiates that is pleasant rather than damaging, and these alternatives need to be articulated and encouraged by senior management of whatever institution is afflicted by hazing practices. Thirdly, there needs to be a strong marketing and external communication campaign that clearly states that hazing is unacceptable, and people can speak up about their concerns regarding hazing, and can refuse to participate in any ritual initiation ceremony, whether it includes hazing or not, without fear of prejudice or retribution. Until these actions are taken, hazing will continue unabated as routine, history and tradition work to keep on taking it forward. We need mentors rather than thugs inducting our youth, encouragement rather than humiliation, and welcome rather than aggression masquerading as ‘play’.

I have got to the age in my life when I try and see the ‘middle path’ in most debates and issues, and try and always be pragmatic in controversial debate, but there is no doubt that the issue of hazing fills me with a feeling of horror and a sensation of nausea when thinking about it (and indeed writing about it now) which is visceral and extreme (for the record I don’t have any memory of any hazing episodes in my past that would induce such feelings directly), and probably most folk reading this would think and feel similar. I simply cannot understand how anyone can force someone else to engage in practices that are humiliating to them for any reason whatsoever, let alone as part of some group initiation practice. What is in the mind of someone who forces someone else (usually younger or ‘weaker’) to drink urine, or eat faeces, or who as a group whips people as they run past, or worse – it is something that to me that almost defies belief, despite writing about the potential causes of hazing in a rational manner above. Who benefits from forcing first year students to wear strange uniforms on campus in their first year? Who benefits from hitting a new sports team member on their backside with a bat? Who benefits from making someone grovel in front of them or be their ‘servant’ for a year, and at a place of higher learning as it so often does, of all places? I didn’t sign up for such things when I went to School or University, or played competitive sport in my youth, and I don’t think many folk do. Hazing really has no place in modern, or any society, and I fervently hope my children are not exposed to it in their lifetimes when they go through their own ‘rite of passage’ from adolescence to young adults. As much as there is a sociopathic ‘groupthink’ that perhaps lies behind the causation of hazing, perhaps those of us who feel nausea at the thought of it can create a more positive ‘groupthink’ of our own, and work to get it eradicated, or replaced by something which perhaps better incorporates the ‘old’ virtues associated with rite of passage ceremonies, such as mentorship, welcome, and celebration – if they indeed ever existed in the initiation practices of times and traditions past!

The Brain, The Mind, And Me – Where Are ‘We’ In The Convoluted Mass Of Neurons We Call The Brain

This week I had some fun time getting some basic research projects on the go, a welcome break from my now almost full time management life, as much as I enjoy it. I was asked to comment on a theoretical article that suggested that the prefrontal cortex is important in pacing and fatigue processes, and write a review article on brain function regulating activity, by my good friend and world leading physiologist and exercise scientist, Professor Andy Jones, and both of these got the neurons firing in pleasant way. For most of my career I have been a researcher, and while I describe my main research interest as understanding generic regulatory control mechanisms when asked about it, my research passion has always been the brain and how it functions, and creates ‘us’ and what we see, feel and experience as ‘life’. I will never forget the ‘buzz’ I got when working at the NIH in Washington DC, with Austrian neurologist without peer, Dr Bernhard Voller, when we put a needle electrode into one of the muscles controlling eye movement of a subject and heard the repetitive ‘clicks’ of each action potential as it fired in order to control the muscle’s movement, or when we used transcranial magnetic stimulation to stimulate the motor cortex (basically a magnet placed on the skull which ‘fires’ electromagnetic waves into the brain) and saw muscles in the finger or foot twitching when we selectively targeted different regions of the motor cortex. I will never forget the feeling of excitement when with Dr Laurie Rauch at the University of Cape Town we first got good quality EEG traces from folk and saw the EEG change frequency and complexity when someone put their hands on the folk being tested. I will also remember the wonder I felt (tinged with a degree of sadness for the rats which were sacrificed) working with Professor Viv Russell and Dr Musa Mabandla when we saw quantitative differences in neurotransmitter levels in areas of the brain of rats associated with motivation and drive that had run to exhaustion compared to more ‘lazy’ ones that simply refused to run as much as others did. Having said all this, it’s amazing that after all these years, and so much research performed on the brain by so many top quality folk all round the world, we still have almost no idea of how the brain functions, how and where the mind is and how it relates to the physical brain structures and processes, and where ‘we’ and our ‘soul’ are in relation to this most complex organ in our body.

As everyone knows, the brain is an odd shaped organ situated in the skull which consists of billions of neurons which connect with each other and with nerve fibres that ‘flow’ out to the body and which regulate all our body systems, processes and functions. Information is sent through neurons via electrical signals (called action potentials) which create ‘coded’ messages and commands. In a somewhat strange organizational structural process, there is a gap between each neuron where they connect to each other (called a synapse) and chemical substances called neurotransmitters fill the gap when electrical activity comes down the neuron and allows the ‘message’ to be transferred to the next neuron with great fidelity, though the synaptic neurotransmitter activity can also amplify, moderate or attenuate the signal passing through it, in a manner which is still not well understood, but related to the type of neurotransmitter that is secreted at the synapses. The brain also ‘secretes’ chemical substances such as hormones and regulatory factors that go via the bloodstream to various peripheral organs in the body and can control their function in a slower but longer acting way.

Though we do have some knowledge of basic output and input functions of the brain, such as vision and hearing processes, and sensory inputs and motor outputs from and to the body, there is currently no unifying theory of how neural activity in the brain works in its entirety to control or create the complex activities associated with life as we know it, such as thinking, memory, desire, awareness or even basic consciousness. Before the 1700’s it was assumed that the brain functioned as a type of ‘gland’, based on the theories of the Greek physician Galen. In his model, the nerves conveyed fluids from the brain to the peripheral tissues (so he was right at least about the ‘secretory’ function of the brain). In the 1800’s, using staining techniques and the (then) recently developed light microscope, Cayal and Golgi showed that neural tissues were a network of discrete cells, and that individual neurons were responsible for information processing. Around the same time Galvani showed that muscles and neurons produced electricity, and von Helmholtz and other German physiologists showed that electrical activity in one nerve cell affected activity in another neuron it was in contact with via a synapse in a predictable manner. Two conflicting views of how the brain uses these electrical-based neuronal systems to send commands or information were developed in the 1800’s. The first was reductionistic, suggesting that different brain regions control specific functions. This concept was based on the work of Joseph Gall, who also suggested that continuous use of these different brain regions for specific tasks caused regional hypertrophy (increased size). Gall suggested that this regional brain hypertrophy created bulges in the skull, which could be associated with the specific function of the underlying brain tissue. While the skull theory of his has ‘fallen by the wayside’, in later years Brodmann described 52 separate anatomically and functionally distinct regions of the cortex, and Hughlings Jackson showed that in focal epilepsy, convulsions in different parts of the body were initiated in different parts of the cerebral cortex. These findings were supported by the work of Penfield, who used small electrodes to stimulate different areas of the motor cortex in awake neurological patients and induced movements in different anatomical regions of the body (similar to the work we did at the NIH, albeit we did it in a more indirect / less invasive way).

The second and opposing view was that all brain regions contribute to every different mental task and motor function in an integrative and continuous manner. This theory was based on the work of Flourens in the 1800’s, and was described as the aggregate field theory. Recent research has shown that large areas of the brain communicate with each other continuously using electromagnetic waves of different frequency during any task. Further support for the aggregate field theory comes from the concept that no activity is ever simple, and even a ‘simple’ motor task such as moving the hand to get something is the final common output of multiple behavioural demands such as emotional context, prior experience, sensory perception and homeostatic requirements, and therefore cannot be attributed solely to any specific / single region, except from a final output perspective. While the aggregate field theory fell into disfavour in the late 1900’s, due to the development of MRI, CT and PET scanning of the brain and these techniques ascendancy to being ‘the in thing’ in neuroscience / brain research over the last few decades, the ‘snapshot’ methodology associated with brain scanning using MRI and these other image-based techniques have contributed very little real understanding of how the brain functions, apart from creating ‘pretty’ pictures that show that certain brain regions ‘light up’ whenever a task is performed. Unfortunately, often the same areas of the brain are shown to be active when using these techniques during very different testing protocols, which creates a confusing and complex ‘picture’ of what is happening in the brain during even simple tasks.

Incredibly therefore, we still know so little about how the brain works that this basic argument between ‘regional’ versus ‘general’ brain functionality has not been resolved, despite all the technological development in the last few decades, such as those described above. Even more mysterious is how the ‘mind’ works, and there is still active debate of what the ‘mind’ is, and how it relates to physical brain structures. The mind is defined as the cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement and memory. As will be obvious, this definition of the mind can at best be described as a conceptually ‘hazy’ one and does not help much clarify things, but basically the mind is what ‘we’ are – the ‘me’ that makes our life feel as if it is ‘ours’ and that we are unique and our experiences and thoughts are ‘our own’. The debate still rages about whether the mind is ‘in’ – the monist or materialist doctrine – or ‘out’ of the brain tissue – the ‘dualist’ doctrine. The monist / materialist doctrine posits that everything we think, feel and ‘are’ can and is found in the functioning and activity of the neural cells and neurons in the brain. The dualist theory posits that ‘we’ are an immaterial ‘spirit’, as described by Rene Descartes, that is related to but exists ‘out’ of the brain and body – a more spiritual interpretation of what ‘we’ are and a theory which allows for concepts such as ‘soul’. The clearest evidence for a strong relationship between physical brain matter and the mind is the effect of physical agents such as psychoactive and anaesthetic drugs and alcohol on the ‘mind’, and the effect of traumatic brain injury in certain areas of the brain on mental function and the mind. But, given that we have absolutely no idea where memories are stored in the brain or how they are stored, how ‘thought’ happens, or even what consciousness ‘is’, it is difficult to completely refute the dualist approach, even as a hard-nosed scientist, although it is the ‘death sentence’ for many a neuroscientist’s career for one of us to suggest a belief in dualism is a scientifically possible entity. Religion is perhaps in many ways a derivative of this ‘explanatory gap’ between mind and brain function, and will continue to flourish until science eventually (if possible) proves the materialist / monist theory to be true or refutes the dualist theory with more evidence than we currently have.

So what do we know of the brain, the most brilliant and puzzling organ in the body, and its function. Sadly, after 25 years studying it, I have to be honest and say almost nothing, and anyone who says differently, is not being honest or is deluding themselves (which of course would be an irony of note). Us neuroscientists are in many ways beholden to and ‘straightjacketed’ in developing our brain and mind theories by the laboratory investigative techniques that are currently available which allow us to examine whatever our area of interest is, and unfortunately in the brain research area, these techniques are just not subtle enough, or conversely not complex enough, to allow us to have any more understanding today of how the brain works than in many ways was known one or two hundred years ago. It’s amazing that we know so much about heart, liver, and muscle function – indeed any organ of the body – and so little about the brain, which is such a seemingly impenetrable mystery. Most neuroscientists like myself eventually focus on examining specific areas of brain or mind function, perhaps to protect ourselves from a sense of being abject failures in our chosen discipline – which is why I describe my main area of interest as control theory rather than ‘brain function’ research to those that ask. But, it surely will be some scientist, working with some new recently developed piece of equipment that we are not yet aware of, that will have the ‘eureka’ moment for neuroscience similar to what occurred with genetics / molecular biology in the 1950’s with the breakthrough in the understanding of the structure of DNA that in turn led to how quickly molecular biology developed in the subsequent 60 years to its current status, and we will have a clear understanding of how the brain works and how the mind fits in to the puzzle. Whoever does have this ‘eureka’ moment will very much deserve their Nobel Prize. Until that time, I, and probably most research folk who are interested in basic brain function, will keep on telling our new neuroscience / physiology / exercise science students each year that as scientists us neuroscientists are dismal failures / the least successful of all the research folk working in academia, given how little of brain and mind function we know and understand, despite all our valiant endeavours and countless hours in the lab, trying to work it all out.

But, having said this, I will also continue to marvel at the brain and mind, and be thankful that I had, and have, the career from a research perspective that I do, trying to work out and understand something as truly amazing as the brain, which is the ‘root of all life as we know it’, whatever life and our part of it is. In the mass of neurons in our brains, which work in some mysterious way and using codes we still need to ‘crack’, ‘we’ exist, feel, live and die. Unless of course the dualists are right, and us research folk have been fooling ourselves for a long time, and ‘we’ are just spirits that exist in our bodies for the length of time we are alive, before heading off for another adventure, either in another body, or in another world. Time, hard work, and perhaps a good dose of luck, will allow us neuroscience folk to eventually have a definitive opinion either way – however at this point in time, the mind is willing, but the contemporary brain appears to be too ‘weak’ to make or find that elusive ‘eureka’ breakthrough and know what itself, and indeed ‘we’, are all about!

%d bloggers like this: