What's in a brain?

by Bill Ralston / 29 November, 2012
It doesn’t take a genius to make an iPad app out of images of Einstein’s brain.
smorgasborder cartoon by Steve Bolton

You’ll be pleased to hear they’ve found Albert Einstein’s brain. Well, to be clear about this, they always knew where his brain was, sort of. When he died in 1955, a sneaky pathologist nicked it, pickled it and stuck it in a jar. He then chopped it up into more than 200 pieces and mailed them to researchers around the world.

What was missing for half a century was a series of photographs the wily pathologist had taken of the brain before he sliced and diced it. Unfortunately for his career, the pathologist hadn’t asked Albert or his family’s permission before whipping the brain out and having a good poke at it. His university employers eventually fired him in a nasty dispute over ownership of the body parts.

Only relatively recently were some of the photos of the brain rediscovered and, of course, they did what anyone would do, they turned them into an iPad app. Now, for just US$9.99, you can hold in the palm of your hand microscopic bits of Einstein’s brain. Quite why you would want to look at something like that on your iPad, I do not know, yet scientists have been happily peering at the photos and say they show interesting patterns that reveal Einstein’s genius. I’ve had a look and it just looks like a brain to me.

All I know is I’d be slightly annoyed if someone stole my brain and turned it into an iPad app, but then, I’d be dead so it would be the least of my worries, I guess. Still, your brain is quite an important bit of you, and it’s important not just for thinking. I read somewhere that the brain produces oxytocin, a peptide called the “love hormone”. New lovers suddenly have gallons of this stuff pumping through their systems to help them bond, which kind of disproves the theory that men in lust just think with “the little brain”; in fact, it’s the big brain secreting the oxytocin that drives them to want to do the wild thing.

Oxytocin promotes social bonding and goodwill, so I suppose in the weeks before Christmas there is a veritable tsunami of oxytocin surging through such places as the office Christmas party or that bar where you ended up dancing with your knickers on your head. In fact, I wouldn’t mind some more oxytocin. It not only helps you forge social relationships and stave off physical and psychological problems, but, best of all, it makes you feel good.

Apparently, you can generate it through simple physical contact with someone else, such as a hug. If you go further than just a hug and start doing the wild thing, it’s the oxytocin that helps produce the whoopee factor. Researchers have also found it is a significant force in the prevention of both obesity and depression.

It also promotes monogamy. Curiously, humans are one of the few mammals, along with the prairie vole, that can mate for life (divorces not withstanding), and German scientists have conducted startling research that proves oxytocin is linked to monogamous relationships. They gave the hormone and a placebo to 86 men, then sent an attractive woman into the room with the men. Those on oxytocin kept their distance – in fact, they stayed 76cm further away from the poor woman than the blokes who weren’t on the drug. Sadly, the scientists did not perform the experiment on women, but I suspect the effect would have been similar.

So, if your spouse is heading out for a night of pre-Christmas revelry with the boys (or girls), just to be on the safe side I’d recommend giving him or her a damn good cuddle beforehand to get those oxytocin levels up.
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