classic papers

“We cannot distinguish the sane from the insane…”

My favorite decade is the 1970’s.  Partially because of the urban cowboy shirts.   But also because it was – by subjective evaluation – the most subversive decade.  This is the decade that gave us the original Bad News Bears, remember, one of the most subversive movies ever made.

Now for some subversive science from the 1970’s.  In 1973, D.L. Rosenhan and eight other “normal” people got themselves admitted – undercover – as patients at psychiatric hospitals.  After admission, they made every effort to act normally and to answer questions truthfully, staying on average over 3 weeks.

The doctors and nurses failed to realize that they were sane.  But the real patients in the hospital saw through the ruse.

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Surprised by a dying cat

Here’s another classic.  Even better, here’s David Hubel’s Nobel lecture from 1981, in which he explains the happy accident that led to their discovery.

Hubel and his partner had connected a microelectrode to a particular neuron in a cat’s visual cortex.  They were trying to get the neuron to fire reliably in response to visual stimulation (a black dot).  But nothing worked.  And then all of a sudden, it started firing like crazy.  Turns out this particular neuron was “turned on” by the shadow of the glass slide as it was inserted into their projector – a sharp black line moving across a light background.  What’s more, it would only fire when the black line was at certain orientations.  It had no interest in a black dot at all.

This was one of the first papers to show that some neurons in our cortex (our upper brain) are very specifically tuned to a very narrow set of stimuli.  And it spawned a huge course of “single unit” studies in which psychologists test individual neurons throughout the brain to see which environmental conditions will make them fire.  Still a huge part of brain research.

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Is Your Brain Really Necessary?

In a famous paper in the early 1980’s the pediatrician John Lorber asked “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?”  He examines hydrocephalics who – despite losing over 95% of the volume of their brain  – continue to function in the everyday world and often have IQs over 100.  (Hydrocephalics experience a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.)

I first learned about this paper from my neurolinguistics teacher Suzie Curtiss.  Suzie was studying epileptic children who had a whole hemisphere of their brain removed but went on to live normal lives.  These cases raise wonderful questions about the nature of intelligence and the incredible ability of the brain to adapt (“plasticity”) to serious injuries or novel environments.

This is the first post of its type…. famous papers which turned a field upside down or challenged conventional wisdom.  Note that I’ve linked to a Science magazine article about Lorber, rather than his original academic paper, since I couldn’t find the original online.

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