How and Why did Madness Evolve??

I’m reading a book at the minute called ‘The descent of madness: Evolutionary Origins of Psychosis and the Social Brain’ by Jonathan Burns. I thought I’d summarise some of the theories in the book as to how schizophrenia came about, for the principle reason that it’s very bloody interesting.

Some evolutionary thinkers have posited that schizophrenia is a recent disorder which is a modern response to the stresses of the industrial and technological age. Burns argues against this and claims that there is evidence of schizophrenia from early human history.

So, how and why did schizophrenia evolve when it has such a maladaptive nature? It’s certainly not being selected out because the phenotype still persists with a similar rate of incidence across the human race.

The Adaptionist Programme has a solution for this problem of mental disorders in that it views them as behavioural traits which evolved due to an advantage for the the individual in the ‘ancestral environment’, however, now, in a world which has changed and become psychologically stressful, a mismatch is created between the evolved trait and the modern environment.

The persistence of the phenotype can also be explained by taking into account the fact that psychotic illness has a continuum on which schizophrenia is a severe end of the spectrum, because of this other phenotypes on the genetic spectrum could harbour particularly adaptive traits. Genetically related but unaffected individuals who share some of the milder features of the illness may possess some kind of evolutionary advantage and hence the phenotype would linger.

The hypotheses above are plausible by Jonathan Burns claims he has a better solution:

Our hominid ancestors evolved a sophisticated neural network supporting social cognition and adaptive interpersonal behaviour (in other words the social brain). This has been identified, using functional imaging, to be comprised in the fronto-temporal and fronto-parietal cortical networks. Psychosis (and schizophrenia in particular) are characterised by functional and structural deficits in these areas and hence the term ‘social brain disorders’ are fitting.

Schizophrenics display abnormalities in a wide range of social cognition tasks such as emotion recognition, theory of mind and affective responsiveness and as a result individuals with schizophrenia find themselves disadvantaged in the social arena and vulnerable to the stresses of their complex social environments.

So, since there is such evidence to support that the areas which comprise our ‘social brains’ are the same regions which contribute to the disorder of schizophrenia when functional and structural deficits are present it becomes clear that schizophrenia exists as a consequence to the complex social brain.

This is a desirable hypothesis due to the fact that it does not rely on a Cartesian model of an isolated ethereal mind separated from body and environment, and instead concentrates on a physically and socially integrated construct of mind, embodied in the living world.


I’d just like to add a small disclaimer which says that I’m not an expert in schizophrenia or pretty much anything I’m writing about here (I haven’t even finished the book) so sorry if I’ve got anything hideously wrong. Please tell me. I’ll revisit this with extra thoughts on the subject once I have finished the book.

In other news and on the subject of evolutionary psychology here’s a really fun and ridiculously geeky thing I found:

Evolutionary Psychology Bingo!

Noam Chomsky: Inventor of Linguistics… Huh?

I just started reading Johann Hari’s latest article about Noam Chomsky, and I was welcomed to this interesting fact:

Noam Chomsky is one of the most hysterically abused figures in the world today. Even his critics have to concede that his work inventing the field of linguistics — and so beginning to decode the structure of how language is formed in the human brain — makes him one of the most important intellectuals alive.

I agree that Chomsky is an important intellectual figure, and his massive contributions to linguistics are well-documented, but he did not invent the field. Some might say reinvented… Although, I’m not sure how favourably history will view Chomsky’s shadow having loomed over linguistics for such a long time. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he’s largely been a positive influence, even if I find myself disagreeing with a lot of his major ideas.

Some links #3

Of my random meanderings around the Internet, I think the coolest thing I’ve seen this past week certainly has to be the Steampunk sequencer:

With that out of the way, here are some links:

Some Links #2

This week we all get to learn a new word, the potential origins of the written word and killing at a distance. Enjoy!

Guns, Germs and Predictable Reviews

If, like me, you generally like the Guardian’s science features, then please avoid reading Tim Radford‘s book club discussion of Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs and Steel. Ever since I noticed this book was on the Guardian’s reading list, it’s been an ongoing curiosity of mine as to how they will tackle the subject. Mainly because Diamond’s book, along with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, urged me to move into studying evolution. Sadly, and perhaps not very surprisingly, you get little from the discussion bar an unequivocal acceptance of Diamond’s central thesis: that of environmental determinism.

Nowhere is there a mention of ideas that stand somewhat in opposition to Diamond’s, such as those in the 10,000 Year Explosion. Namely, the consequences of agriculture on recent human evolution, and the growing mountain of evidence supporting the contention that different human populations have adapted to their local environments.

And just to be clear: I think Diamond’s book is a well-written, scholarly account of human history, and it’s influence is not to be understated. But I also think he overlooked a large portion of the argument.

How Culture Shaped The Human Genome

The study of culture, cultural evolution, gene-culture coevolution and niche construction have all received much more attention over the last decade. So it’s nice to see Nature taking on-board a fascinating review by Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee and Sean Myles about how culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. It’s really worth reading for anyone interested in the interactions between biology and culture. In particular, I was pleased to see them put forward the notion of culture having accelerated recent evolution, contra Stephen J. Gould’s claim that “there’s been no biological change in humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years”. Here’s the abstract:

Researchers from diverse backgrounds are converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by gene–culture interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that cultural processes can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection. These findings are supported by recent analyses of human genetic variation, which reveal that hundreds of genes have been subject to recent positive selection, often in response to human activities. Here, we collate these data, highlighting the considerable potential for cross-disciplinary exchange to provide novel insights into how culture has shaped the human genome.

Broca's Area and Hierarchical Structure Building

Considering I devoted two blog posts (pt.1 & pt.2) to Broca’s area and its role in processing hierarchically organised sequences, I’m happy report the following from a Talking Brains post on Disentangling syntax and intelligibility:

Hierarchical structure building can be achieved without Broca’s area involvement.

I’ve only just finished reading the post and, despite having some thoughts on the topic, I’m going to read the actual paper in question (Disentangling syntax and intelligibility in auditory language comprehension) before commenting. Especially since the authors, Friederici et al, don’t seem to arrive at the same conclusions as the bloggers over at Talking Brains. Still, as far as I can tell, this is only looking at syntactic information within speech, and doesn’t really tell us anything about the processing of hierarchically organised sequences in other linguistic (e.g. written language) and non-linguistic (e.g. tool manufacturing) domains.

Here’s the abstract for the paper in question:

Studies of the neural basis of spoken language comprehension typically focus on aspects of auditory processing by varying signal intelligibility, or on higher-level aspects of language processing such as syntax. Most studies in either of these threads of language research report brain activation including peaks in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) and/or the superior temporal sulcus (STS), but it is not clear why these areas are recruited in functionally different studies. The current fMRI study aims to disentangle the functional neuroanatomy of intelligibility and syntax in an orthogonal design. The data substantiate functional dissociations between STS and STG in the left and right hemispheres: first, manipulations of speech intelligibility yield bilateral mid-anterior STS peak activation, whereas syntactic phrase structure violations elicit strongly left-lateralized mid STG and posterior STS activation. Second, ROI analyses indicate all interactions of speech intelligibility and syntactic correctness to be located in the left frontal and temporal cortex, while the observed right-hemispheric activations reflect less specific responses to intelligibility and syntax. Our data demonstrate that the mid-to-anterior STS activation is associated with increasing speech intelligibility, while the mid-to-posterior STG/STS is more sensitive to syntactic information within the speech.

Reading Round Up

Here’s some stuff I’ve been reading over the last month or so:

Okay, so that brings you up to date with my reading from May through to July. Next round up will cover August. How fascinating :-/

An article a day… starting some time soon

Having handed in my disseration and, with the notable exception of graduation, all but completed my course, I’m now free to spend much more time working on this blog. From now on I’m hoping to post at least an article a day — varying from research-related posts to just my reading for the day. Probably the most pertinent thing to write about is what I have been working on over these past few months, but being a precocious topic-hopper I’m going to provide a video of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an economist who appears to hold a lot of sensible views about the economy.

N.B. The video I was watching doesn’t appear to be compatible with wordpress. So, here is the link to that video, and the video below is a far shorter segment from Newsnight. It’s dumbed down to the extreme, but you get the gist of Mr Taleb’s stance. Enjoy.

Orangutans – probably more interesting than you

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the past few years there has been a recent spate of articles concerning orangutan intelligence. So, as I’m fairly bored, and in need of a break from university work, I’ve decided to write a bit of an essay on some of these finds.

Orangutans… They’re orange, right?

Correct; but Pongo pygmaeus abelii are so much more than just some arboreal orange ape that eats a lot of fruit. In fact, these great apes, the last surviving members of the genus Pongo, are highly resourceful and intelligent creatures, as evident in their ability to make and use tools, perform calculated reciprocity and even whistle a tune.

Continue reading “Orangutans – probably more interesting than you”