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Senior Seminar in Biology and Society

September 15, 2009


Borghese Hermaphroditus, Louvre Museum

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Distortions of Body Image

When we speak of our physical selves, we are often referring to the image we have of our body, as it is represented in the mind. Many faculties are involved in creating this mental representation; some are sensations which we receive as input to the nervous system. These immediate experiences allows for the perception that there is a unity of the body, but this perception is grounded in assumptions and preexisting information about the body. Knowledge of the body is organized to fit a certain schema that permits one to view themselves as a complete embodied person. The mental image of our body schema is the body image. It comes to us through the senses, but is not a mere perception; there are mental pictures and representations involved in it, but it is not a mere representation.

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A Stroke of Creativity

If you were asked to pick something that you thought would trigger an undiscovered artistic talent, you probably wouldn’t reply, “degenerative brain disease”, but it’s completely plausible. In one such case, Tommy Mchugh was brought to a hospital, in 2001, because of a sudden onset of severe headache. Testing showed that he suffered from subarachniod hemorrhages caused by a stroke. After surgery he complained of what can be described as a “split mind disorder”, where his perceptions and personality were altered (3)(6). He began to compulsively express these altered perceptions through art, which he had shown no interest or ability in, prior to the stroke.  

Studies of these cases are suggestive of mild frontotemporal dysfunction. Specifically, Tommy’s tests of executive function showed impairment, mainly in tasks which required alternating between categories or tasks, but not to the extent found in previous studies of frontotemporal dementia. Clinical characteristics include; “…a profound alteration in character and social conduct, occurring in the context of relative preservation of instrumental functions of perception, spatial skills, praxis and memory”(7). Patients also experience a decline in social conduct, “breaches of interpersonal etiquette, tactlessness and disinhibition” as well as “impairment in regulation of personal conduct”(7). They also experience speech impairment and cognitive changes (7)

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Affect and Neural Development

            The major propagator of the evolutionary process is the press for continuity, the tendency to act in order to increase the probability of passing on genes. In order to preserve ones genes, individuals are in competition, to ensure that ones genes prevail over another’s; this can be accomplished individually or collaboratively (4). While it seems logical that animals would sacrifice themselves for their young or mates, humans seem to present a special problem to this evolutionary theory in that they sacrifice themselves for abstract principles and others that are of no biological relation. A possible key to this oddity is affect hunger, an urgent need for affective bonding, which continues after the critical development period and makes mutuality and sociality as important as competition in the evolutionary process. Affective bonding provokes certain social behaviors, in others, which are necessary for normal neural development. Furthermore, only with normal neural development would an individual be able to exhibit the social behaviors essential in forming affective bonds.

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