Enter the maze

Brain Matter

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

Red brain glowing in skeleton: copyright www.istockphoto.com 40381162

Ada Lovelace wasn't just interested in what controlled machines, she was also interested in what controlled her behaviour and that of others. Perhaps this was because her father, Lord Byron, was so wild and she was worried she might develop the same personality traits. Certainly her mother saw mathematics as a means to calm Ada and divert her from the possible excesses of poetry!

Ada studied a popular 19th century scientific subject called phrenology which asserted that the brain was made up of different parts, 'organs'. Each organ controlling different aspects of our character. So the 'firmness organ' was sited right at the top middle of our heads, the 'hope organ' below that and forward a little towards the nose, with the rather unpleasant 'destructiveness organ' occupying the area just behind the ears. So they believed the structure of a person's brain influenced a person's behaviour.

Phrenology charts were drawn of a person's skull showing the sizes of their 'organs' based on an assessment of the person's personality. The more hopeful you were, the bigger your 'hope organ', the more musical a person the larger their 'tune organ'. Phrenology was taken very seriously by the scientific community during the early 1800's, though science has since shown there is nothing to it.

Ada was also very interested in mesmerism, a form of hypnosis but with a twist. The twist was that who ever mesmerised you, transferred their 'animal magnetism' through 'ethereal fluids' into the person being hypnotised, thereby changing your behaviour. A combination of phrenology and mesmerism meant that by touching a particular part of your head, say the 'tune organ' a mesmerist could supposedly improve a person's musical ability. Sounds uncomfortable and rather freaky.

Not surprisingly both phrenology and mesmerism were discredited by the mid 1800's. Not only because of the lack of scientific evidence but also perhaps because of the awful stereotyping and racism that was justified by some people, based on the size and shape of people's heads.

Ada's work on the first computer has led to the technology now being used to study these disorders

However, fast forward to the 20th century. Searching for a link between brain anatomy and psychiatric disorders is an area of intense research. Brain scans are seen as an important key to unlocking this puzzle. As people do different tasks, different areas of the brain light up in the scanners' images. But brain scans are far more expensive than a pencil sketch of a Victorian head. So scientists are crowd sourcing their scans, sharing them across the world in the Enhancing Neuroimaging and Genetics through Meta-Analysis (ENIGMA) project, named after Alan Turing's code breaking WWII exploits. In this project the researchers aim to crack the genetic code, just as those at Bletchley Park used the first working computers to crack German military codes. The ENIGMA team collaboratively decide on the questions to be asked about psychiatric disorders and brain structures. Hundreds of scientists across the world are then sent an algorithm describing the steps to analyse the brain scans. They use the algorithms to analyse their scans and send back their results.

Ada Lovelace may have been worried that she might develop addictions, depression, or obsessive behaviors like her father, but her work in creating the first algorithm for the first computer has contributed to the technology now being used to study these disorders, and perhaps find a cure.

Billion of pounds are spent worldwide on alternative therapies such as reiki, and energy healing. Is this a modern day mesmerism or are we waiting for scientific evidence to prove they work? We may not have a hope organ but sometimes we are too hopeful about ideas with no evidence to back them!