Friday, 6 June 2008

Surely everyone knows about the right parahippocampal gyrus

From the New York Times :
There was nothing very interesting in Katherine P. Rankin’s study of sarcasm — at least, nothing worth your important time. All she did was use an M.R.I. to find the place in the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides. But then, you probably already knew it was in the right parahippocampal gyrus.

What you may not have realized is that perceiving sarcasm, the smirking put-down that buries its barb by stating the opposite, requires a nifty mental trick that lies at the heart of social relations: figuring out what others are thinking. Those who lose the ability, whether through a head injury or the frontotemporal dementias afflicting the patients in Dr. Rankin’s study, just do not get it when someone says during a hurricane, “Nice weather we’re having.”
A lot of people with Aspergers have the same problem. An Aspergic child told to "hop on the bus" by his teacher will often do just that. He's not trying to be a smart-Alec, he's just trying to conform and do what he's told. The consequent punishment just means he has less faith in cause and effect next time, as punishments and rewards appear to happen at random, with no discernible pattern.

Been there, done that.

And one of the so far unexplained aspects of my transition is that my mild but persistent Aspie symptoms went away as part of it, and in days not months. I did get into the habit of taking people literally, and now sometimes go very serious when they're being sarcastic, just to get a rise out of them. The thing is, it's deliberate now.
To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” Dr. Rankin said.

The discovery fits with an increasingly nuanced view of the right hemisphere’s role, said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, an associate professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The left hemisphere does language in the narrow sense, understanding of individual words and sentences,” Dr. Chatterjee said. “But it’s now thought that the appreciation of humor and language that is not literal, puns and jokes, requires the right hemisphere.”
After a presentation of her findings at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in April, Dr. Rankin was asked whether even those with intact brains might have differences in brain areas that explain how well they pick up on sarcasm.

“We all have strengths and weaknesses in our cognitive abilities, including our ability to detect social cues,” she said. “There may be volume-based differences in certain regions that explain variations in all sorts of cognitive abilities.”
I always was an inveterate punster. So the capability was probably already there, just suppressed. Gosh I wish that I'd had a series of MRI scans during transition, it might have told us so much! Never mind, I'm sure that Internet Archaeologists in the future, when they know rather more about the Brain than we do now, will recognise the pattern should they read this blog. Just as today we can see that George III had porphyria.


Anonymous said...

So, your ability to read people was unclogged by your transition? Interesting. I hadn't thought about my experience before and after until you brought the topic up. I, too, was subject to faux pas in picking up cues. For me, it seemed more a problem of calibration, reading too much into one encounter, and overlooking another.

I'm sure there are other similar stories out there, part of 'the transsexual story.'

Perhaps this is a phenomenon that bears study?


Anonymous said...

Zoe seems to be saying that pre-transition was Asperger's, literal minded and not picking up the cues; post-trans, she acts literal-minded although she actually does understand what's going on.

When I was 18, if you'd guaranteed that I'd have insight into people, at the cost of M to F transition, I'd almost certainly have signed up for it.

Zoe Brain said...

Hazumu - I suggest you have a look at the Yahoo Transgender PDD group.

This group is for individuals who have lives that have been touched by both Pervasive Developmental Disorders and Gender Identity issues. Any one who has, or thinks they may have, autism, Asperger Syndrome, High Functioning Autism (HFA), PDD, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or similar AND ALSO may have Gender Identity issues, Intersex (IS), Benjamin Syndrome or similar is welcome. Also welcome are transgender parents of AS or similar kids, vice versa, and sympathetic parents of AS TG kids. Or have one and in a relationship with someone who has the other.
There is known to be a statistically significant correlation between Asperger's Syndrome and Gender Dysphoria but the nature and implications of the link are unknown. Having both of these conditions is quite a plateful and gives us special challenges. We share our experiences, ideas, beliefs, strength and hope.

"Having both of these conditions is quite a plateful..." Just a bit, yes.

Zoe Brain said...

Laserlight - that would not have been a career-enhancing move.

Rather than go into how it feels, imagine if the Hypothetical Devil's Bargain might have been something like (to put it crudely)
"You will be castrated - have your balls cut off, and your dick shortened to between 1 and 2 inches."

Even to me, that doesn't sound a particularly attractive proposition.

Now when you consider that for guys who are FtoM, that is the after not the before situation, that that is a vastly better position than the one they were lumbered with initially, you may get some inkling of how bad it is for a guy to be in a gal body.

Norah Vincent, a rather butch lesbian feminist author, did the "boy act" for a while so she could write a book - Self-Made- Man. The excerpt available at the Amazon site (involving eye contact) shows that she gained some genuine insight. Yes, that's what it felt like for me too.

She lasted 18 months before having a complete nervous breakdown.

Now you are into SciFi, you have great intelligence and considerable intellectual flexibility. Should you have been landed with a female body, there would have been a certain period - pun intended - where the experience would seem novel, strange, interesting. Maybe even fun for a little while, knowing that you were really a guy, no matter what you looked like. Hiding in plain sight. You'd be something of a Tomboy though, wouldn't really fit into the girl-talk sessions where we bitch about how all men are pigs (not that they are, but enough are to give the whole sex a bad name).

Hopefully you'd learn to be afraid soon enough to avoid being a victim.

I think... 2 years, 3 at the outside. Then you'd either be in an institution or dead. 90% chance of self-harm in the first year, as the awfulness of your situation really hits you. Not being able to do anything instinctively, not walking, not body language, not interacting with men, not interacting with women, nothing.

As for a love life, forget it. Too many cross-gendered hormones bollixing up your neurology. Clinical depression without an obvious cause. "Gender Dysphoria" soon leading to a terribly debilitating "Gender Identity Disorder".

Laserlight, I had it easy. My brain, much as I'd like it to be, is not completely feminised. I'm a gal, but not quite the standard model, and I don't just mean in body. I'm not exactly thrilled by this, but it's the way I am.

And the crux of the matter: that, plus a relatively minor psychosis, was the only way I could have survived for so long.