Monday, May 08, 2006

Flashes from the Past: A Brain on Fire

Here's a flash from the past. Here's a letter from a 19 year old writing to a friend-

"My mind was deeply engaged on this subject, and was proceeding to place itself as fast as possible in the midst of confusion, when it was suddenly called to take care of the body by a very cordial, affectionate & also effectual salute from a spout. This of course gave a new turn to my ideas and from thence to Blackfriars Bridge it was busily bothered amongst Projectiles and Parabolas. At the Bridge the wind came in my face and directed my attention as well as earnestly as it could go to the inclination of the Pavement. Inclined planes were then go..."

Who is this physics-head? Why, young Michael Faraday, soon to become one of giants of 19th century science. It may not surprise you that memory triggers (referred to as cue identification in the paper below), intention to remember, and obsessional thinking activate similar areas in the brain:



If you know one of these fiery folks (or maybe occasionally are one yourself?), you know there can be some advantages to immersive and intensive thinking such as this - sometimes it helps you find out something new. But it is exhausting. The term "flow" doesn't really seem to be appropriate for this. This is really a "brain on fire" like we've talked about in a previous gifted thinkers talk (Powerpoint here).

Faraday would later receive letters like this from friends: "Please do not to overwork yourself and to manage a little your mental and physical forces, for your health and life are most precious to your friends in particular and to the scientific world at large."

But Faraday was not some isolated obsessive madman. He did have other interests and lots of friends. In fact, his early life and self-made education are fascinating topics in and of themselves- but we'll tackle that another day.

Faraday was also well-recognized as a particularly gifted communicator, and was a popular teacher (have your students or your kids try his Observations of a Candle, below).

Check out this advice to a friend, "A Lecturer should appear easy and collected, undaunted and unconcerned his thoughts about him and his mind clear and free for the contemplation and description of his subject. His action should not be hasty and violent but slow easy and natural consisting principally in changes of the posture of the body in order to avoid the air of stiffness or sameness that would otherwise be unavoidable." Perhaps he had the gift of a controlled burn.

Triggering Memories and fMRI
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and fMRI
Faraday
Observation: Faraday's Lesson with a Candle

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