Mapping Our Brain Processes in the Pandemic
Air Date: August 30, 2021
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest Rebecca Schwarzlose. She’s a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the new book “Brainscapes: The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain and How They Guide You,” which was made possible in part by the Sloan Foundation. Rebecca, thank you so much for joining me today.
SCHWARZLOSE: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
HEFFNER: Rebecca, let me ask you before getting to your book and some stories from your book, I think the principal question, anyone ought to ask a neuroscientist right now in the midst of this pandemic is how the current research on the brain impacts our thinking around the long-term effects of the pandemic on our neurological and mental wellbeing. So I wanted to pose that to you from the outset.
SCHWARZLOSE: That’s a wonderful question. There has been, so my field focuses more on children and development, and there’s already been a good bit of work looking at kind of social effects of the pandemic and children. Having more, there’s a rise in mental illness or symptoms of mental illness and anxiety, from, I think there are some other, there are questions that I think have yet not yet been explored, which we will maybe be learning about in the years and decades to come. Because, in particular with child development there are these critical windows of time, sometimes very early even in the first months or weeks of life, where certain parts of the brain are developing their specialization. And if the inputs are disrupted during that time, that can influence how that part of the brain is organized forever. So, there are ways in which children’s change in experience such as seeing fewer faces, you know, or seeing partially covered faces or other sorts of changes that arise from the pandemic, hearing less language perhaps or having less social interaction, can also be having an effect in the long-term on how children’s brains are developing, in addition to all of the anxiety and you know the stress, which has affected families and you know, created financial hardships which impact children’s wellbeing and brain development.
HEFFNER: Is there a way we’ll ever be able to measure the impact of the isolation, the lockdowns versus the impact of COVID itself, which is this peculiar disease that has precipitated a pandemic, not a common flu, which we know has had neurological impact as well as of course impacting the lungs and organs that you would expect for a typically respiratory virus in the form of a coronavirus. So you know, based on the research that you’ve done so far, or what you’ve read at the Psychological and Brain Sciences Cognition and Development Lab at Washington University are there ways that you’re assessing those two disparate impacts on our biology, on the biology of our neurology?
SCHWARZLOSE: That’s a, that’s a wonderful question. My work is not focused on COVID-19 impact, but in a way, actually, going forward, all of our work will be, because as we study human brains and human brains have been through this tremendous disruptive event, which can include, as you mention, physiology, so the impact of actually having the illness and the ways in which that can be affecting children and adults neurologically, in addition, the many ways in which our lives have been turned upside down by COVID in the last year plus. And so as you say, I think disentangling those things is going to be, you know, virtually impossible, but there are some ways that we can certainly get at what may be the effect of an illness and other differences that kind of, we would be likely to think based on our knowledge of how brain development works, are attributed to differences in experience.
HEFFNER: Has COVID impacted the nature of the scientific inquiries that you do at your lab. In other words, tell our listeners and viewers about the research that was ongoing up through the beginning of 2020, and what has continued, or what has changed since that point.
SCHWARZLOSE: Well, for those of us who do research with human participants, it was quite a stark difference because certainly during the lockdown, we, you know, we were carrying out investigations with, in our case children, studying the child mind and child brain. We could no longer collect data. So this is true for virtually all universities halted their human participant experiments for a period of time. And so what that meant was not only that many of us were not collecting data and working instead on other aspects of the science, but that many ongoing studies were to some degree disrupted. So, for example, studies that followed children for many years, we’ve kind of lost a section of those data, which is really unfortunate because we invest so much money in it. But obviously it can’t be helped because it was for the greater good. You know, we needed to do the lockdown and we needed to keep everyone safe, but there is, there are many ways in which research that requires human participants was kind of, had to, kind of re-evolve itself and go online, try to find participants online; reanalyze data that already existed from, from the brain. So you know, it’s exciting to be back in a state where stage where we’re able to start collecting data again. And I think, you know, scientists have done the best that they can, given the challenges.
HEFFNER: Well, the show must go on and the book did, and that brings us to “Brainscapes,” a wonderful book that documents what you call the exquisite choreography of the brain and how it maps our understanding. Talk to me about the origin of this project. And I’m sure you did rely on some research that was germane for the book, but the inspiration of the research you’ve done for many years to conceive of this book and what it chronicles.
SCHWARZLOSE: Yeah. So the passion and interest that gave rise to this book began from my graduate research, when I was a graduate student at MIT, I was working with Dr. Nancy Kanwisher and we were studying visual processing, so visual recognition, how you look at an object or a person, and know what it is, or know who it is. And in this case, we were studying an area of the brain that is very important for recognizing faces. If you damage this area, through stroke or trauma, you can lose the ability to recognize your children’s faces, your friends, even yourself in the mirror. And we discovered that there is right next to that area, there is an area that is highly selective for recognizing body parts or the body. So there was a face region, and then there was a body region right next to each other in the brain. And that got me to really start thinking about why do things land where they do in the brain, and what can that tell us about what the brain is doing, how it works. And so I started to read much more widely about what determines layout and how our brain forms these actual maps of the different features of our environment.
HEFFNER: How do those maps, how can we comprehend those maps? You know, basically in terms of our own processes and in terms of the actual physical manifestation of it, like a DNA or an RNA?
SCHWARZLOSE: Yes. So I spent the first chapter of the book explaining this, cause it’s a bit mind bending that there is an actual map and not just one, but many inside of your brain, they’re in the tissues of your brain. And they are they are actual spatial maps that are spread out across the surfaces and folds of your brain. But instead of having a layout that you can see, like with ink, they work by electricity. So the firing of cells. But there’s technologies, many different kinds that can make these maps visible so that we can literally see the maps in our brains and in the brains of all different kinds of creatures. And I have some pictures in the book, to help make that, you know, intuitive and to show exactly what I mean by that. But in fact, once you kind of get over that hurdle of how could I have a map in my brain? I think that the idea of understanding these maps in our brain is actually, probably one of the, you know, comprehensible, most comprehensible ideas in neuroscience. And it gets us so much when you understand it and you understand how our brain uses these maps over and over again in many different ways, you get so far already in understanding how our brain works as it does. So it’s a very powerful idea, and it’s amazing that you can see it. It’s something that you can actually look at.
HEFFNER: And what are the implications of the discoveries of these maps, multiple maps, right, in each one of our brains?
SCHWARZLOSE: Yeah. They are, they’re profound, especially with respect to technology. So when the first of these maps was discovered more than a hundred years ago, they were immediately useful in allowing surgeons to target neurosurgery, figure out where there was a tumor or an abscess in a person’s brain and go in and remove it. So that back in the 1800s, they were doing some successful neurosurgery this way. Now, the knowledge of these brain maps also allows us to very effectively use technology to bridge the divide between computers and the brain and create what is known as brain-computer interfaces. So, because these maps are laid out in a, usually a pretty stereotyped fashion, and we know very, very well where they are on the surface of the brain or within the brain, you can pretty easily say for any given person say, oh, I know that right here under this, my fingers here on your skull is the part of your brain that controls the movements of your right hand, for example. And so if you, if you open-up the brain, or if you read signals from the brain there, you are able to either decode or to transmit information into that part of the map that’s controlling the hand. So this gives you this like beautiful portal for communication between brain and computer.
HEFFNER: How much of this is a medical intervention versus a curious, a subject of curiosity. That is to say, if we each can get, like we could, our ancestry history, or, you know, even more specifically our DNA and biological fiber, you know, this is part of that landscape that we should have access to. Do you envision a day when we can understand the uniqueness of our respective maps as human beings?
SCHWARZLOSE: Yes, absolutely. So there is already some indication that details of how our maps are laid out affect what we’re able to perceive and what we are able to do, for example, our manual dexterity. They also affect our ability to do certain cognitive functions that involve these maps, such as using our working memory, visual working memory or imagination. So creating mental imagery also draws upon these maps. And so if you know what your map is like, that actually does translate to some degree to what, you know, your brain is best suited to help you do.
HEFFNER: Well, talk to me about the ethics of this, in terms of the intervention here, which is you know, a conversation that I feel like ethicists and scientists, social and biological scientists have been having for years, if not decades. And we still don’t have a manual to really govern how that information or those sets of information would be utilized to protect people’s privacy, but also for self-help, for medical advances to help take care of, you know, considerations or concerns of either a medical or psychological nature, to understand how the map can assist you in your maturation, right, like the maturation of your brain and how it functions in responding to situations, whether that’s critical thinking or in the case of real medical problems, that one may be encountering. But what, you know, having studied and chronicled the entire history of these maps, what do you gather about how we should proceed now, knowing that this technology, likely based on what you’re saying, will be in the hands of lay people of citizens, nonscientists, in a matter of months, if not years?
SCHWARZLOSE: Yes. So I think that it’s, the first thing is that I think the public needs to be aware that that brain-computer interfaces are to some degree already here, and people are working on creating them in a commercial capacity. And so that, this is not a hypothetical problem. This is as you said, an imminent problem, this is something that we need to be thinking about. And it doesn’t have to be a problem that there are, there are medical benefits to it. And there can be ways in which this technology could help a lot of people. But we absolutely need to be talking as a society. And with our government, we need to have we need to have a commission or some sort of a body to be looking into this. And with ethicists, as you mentioned, and with neuroscientists and with people from the community about how we make sure that this technology is not going to infringe upon people’s privacy also, that it’s not going to be something that could be hacked in such a way that they could lose their ability to control their own actions or thoughts. And we would want to make sure that it’s harnessed in a way that helps people, or that people are protected, who might otherwise be vulnerable to being abused by this technology. And right now it’s being, the technology is being, private investors and companies are kind of spearheading this process in a way where we don’t have a formal regulation for how we want to handle this and how we want to think going forward. And beyond just the technology of brain-computer interfaces, as you said, this predictive process, the fact that there are ways now where we can scan your brain and have some hints at what you might be good or bad at, or what you might struggle with, in a month or a year’s time is, is fraught with ethical questions. And I’m not an ethicist. And I, but I would love to hear a dialogue out in the open with ethicists and neuroscientists and the public about how we would want such technology used or harnessed so that it doesn’t it doesn’t create biases or harm people.
HEFFNER: You’re very diplomatically saying to our audience, if you want to avoid what Facebook wrought in the social media revolution, you know after Web 1.0 in advancing, be careful of how we proceed and understand this work is already underway perhaps by some of these same companies that were complicit in generating a whole lot of disinformation around our political processes and social issues over these last years, and specifically the last two presidential election cycles in this country. Not to politicize it, but to give people an understanding that this work is already happening. So be forewarned that this kind of data is already in the hands of people who would commercialize it perhaps to our detriment and not to our benefit.
HEFFNER: You didn’t say that,
SCHWARZLOSE: But you are, you’re saying it beautifully. And especially because it is certainly true that many of these behemoth corporations, including Facebook have areas that are developed, actively developing their own technologies that can harness brand signals, including signals outside of the scalp, which can still reveal information about the neural activity within. And what happens when you have a company or an individual who has information, not just about signals from your brain, but also about what you’re doing in real time, you know, who you’re talking to, or what you’re, what you’re saying, or watching, that provides that corporation and the machine learning algorithms they use, with the perfect, perfect set of data to learn exactly what those signals mean in your brain. And that’s how they really get a handle on, you know, what those signals mean, and they could use it. It can be used to manipulate people. And we know that as you said, already people are being manipulated. And we already know because behavior tells us a lot about an individual. We already know that behavior is being recorded and our selections, our choices. But if we then add on our neural data, the information about literally what our brain is doing, we are just amplifying this problem. And we don’t even know to what degree or how far it’ll go. So it is absolutely something we should be thinking about.
HEFFNER: Rebecca, how do you extrapolate from the processing of questions related to, do I take the vaccine? Do I not take the vaccine? Do I go to a neighbor’s house despite the fact that a family member’s just returned from a country where there is little control over the pandemic, which was the United States in many places for many months, not everywhere today as the vaccines have kicked in here. But those are some of the most interesting processing questions right now in the midst of a pandemic about vaccine hesitancy, reluctance in decisions about, you know, whether or not to take precautions as necessary. And I wonder if you are interested or intrigued at all by those decisions and how our maps have led us to those decisions.
SCHWARZLOSE: That’s a wonderful question. And I am very intrigued because those are the big questions. How do we make the important decisions that guide our actions, you know, and there’s the vaccine and there’s, there’s COVID, and before and after, and continuing throughout is climate change. And, you know, many other actions that we are having to, kind of decisions we have to make about what, what we should be what we should be doing to protect ourselves and our families. And thinking long-term, rather than thinking just short-term. And there are parts of the brain, they, so far, we don’t fully understand their organization and whether they form maps or they are made up of something of a different organization called population. But these areas are kind of really important for helping us plan and imagine ourselves in the future and kind of make decisions based on what we think will happen and how good or bad that outcome might be. So when we imagine, we’re pulling all of the maps that I talked about into play, but we also, there are these brain areas that we’re still working to understand better that really help us to predict what will happen next, what should I be afraid of? How should I react to this event? And when I do what will happen as a result, and these are fascinating parts of the brain that we’re learning a lot about, and I think as we do, I absolutely am fascinated with how does this work and how can we then harness that information to better understand why we make sometimes very bad decisions and what, how we might be able to help people in their decision-making process.
HEFFNER: Right, how to avoid those bad decisions in those processes. And yet we know that there are cultural factors. And I wonder if you might dive into any story that resonates from the book. In the New York Times review, they said the most engaging and quirkier stories were in the second half where you zero in on, as the Times said, “the uses and potential abuses of technologies.” But they do have some predictive quality. And yet we’re ensnared in this country, in our social and political lives, in deeply divisive debates around mask wearing and vaccine taking. And therefore, I really do wonder whether they have, that is the maps, have the predictive quality. And maybe they do, but do they have, are they malleable? You know, if we can predict that someone is not going to take a vaccine or not wear a mask, do the maps really help change that? Can they really help remedy that?
SCHWARZLOSE: Yeah, so I think in this way this is driven by the fact that we, as social creatures are so deeply entrenched in our cultural experience. So the maps that, that, you know, people from different ideologies have, are, you know, virtually identical or very similar, right? We, those maps we share and our brain structure, basic brain structure we share across ideologies. And what is different is that all of us are just having to make sense of a world based on the information we receive. And if you are in an environment where you learn to place trust in a certain set of individuals and a certain message, that is the message that your brain will then use to try to make informed decisions. And so, you know, the brain is like the architecture that’s making this happen. But at the end of the day, it really comes back to the culture, to the narrative. And the fact that we trust those that we, you know, we, we trust our parents or our friends, or the person on TV who tells us what we already think is right. And we place, we place that trust and in doing so, we generate our own idea of what reality is. And so part of, I think the problem is that we can all now sit in our living rooms and have a very different reality from one another, and we really don’t have to speak to each other about it or hear any alternative views. So, you know, I think in this case, the problem isn’t neuroscience so much as society, that we have closed off from dialogue, and we’ve lost the ability or the opportunity to, or perhaps the requirement, to listen to other voices and to have to objectively evaluate the data that come in to us every day.
HEFFNER: I hear a neuroscientist taking the nurture and the nurture versus nature debate here, as we close in these last couple of minutes?
SCHWARZLOSE: Absolutely. And in fact, I will tell you that you know, if you study the child brain and early life, there, there are so many ways that nurture impacts the development of the brain. So you know, we know that it’s very much a two-way street from the very beginning, from, you know, opening their eyes throughout life, we, of course are creatures living in a context. And so it is an interplay between the brain and between the world in which the brain is operating.
HEFFNER: Are there any ways in which the nurture stimulated the maps in a story you want to recount here, as we close here, from your book that really thought would resonate.
SCHWARZLOSE: Yeah, so I think I can, I can tell a story about brain development and specifically the fact that we as children, when children are born, they have extremely malleable brains. Their brains can really, really are able to reorganize themselves if they have experiences or differences in their body or their perception that kind of radically changed their experience from what we would consider, like the typical developmental experience. So an example of that is with children who are born blind and don’t receive visual input, that they are able to really quite radically reallocate their visual maps, which takes up a hefty chunk of our, you know, seeing brain and use it for other things, including number processing and grammar. And so they are able to kind of adapt in ways that allow them to use every bit of their brain and make, you know, get the most out of every bit of tissue and helps them throughout life adapt to the fact that they are living without the sense of sight. So there are so many stories like that that just highlight the profound plasticity of the infant brain.
HEFFNER: Rebecca, thank you so much for your insight today. And I encourage our viewers to check out “Brainscapes” at a bookstore or online bookseller near you. Appreciate your time.
SCHWARZLOSE: Oh, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
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