Some investigators take the quest for self-knowledge to the extreme: Meet five researchers who applied their scientific minds to the defining challenges in their own lives.
By Rebecca Webber published July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Explaining the Inexplicable: Peter Brugger
His Story: As a teenager, Peter Brugger vacuumed up information about the paranormal from books he found on his grandfather's shelves. "I was very interested in things like astral projection and ESP, and I was also fascinated by the controversy between those who believed and those who thought it was nonsense." Brugger counted himself among the former. "I didn't consider myself a sender or receiver of the paranormal, but I had a lot of so-called meaningful coincidences," he says. "Things happened that just couldn't be chance." When he was 23, and walking along the streets of Zurich, a city he lived near but rarely visited, Brugger became convinced he would run into a former coworker. A shadowy figure approached. "I was sure it would be him," says Brugger. It wasn't. But seconds later, he met the man he'd been thinking about. "I couldn't believe it! I even went back to check if I could have seen his image in the window glass," he says.
Brugger pursued a Ph.D. in biology and steered his research toward the phenomenon of perception. For his dissertation, he performed an ESP study on two groups of people: those who believed in the paranormal and those who did not. He exposed his subjects to a rapid sequence of light flashes, and made them believe that the stimuli contained dice faces. The paranormal enthusiasts were particularly unlikely to repeat the same guess for a die twice in a row. Brugger concluded that those who have a hard time accepting that weird occurrences are purely due to chance tend to believe in the paranormal, because it is a way to explain the coincidences they naturally distrust. Those who believe that funny occurrences—such as two identical die rolls in a row—sometimes happen haphazardly don't need to blame unseen forces. It was then that Brugger stopped believing.
His Research: After 20-plus years of scientific exploration, Brugger has accumulated evidence to show that belief in paranormal activity is a brain function, just as emotion and cognition are. The brain chemical dopamine is an obvious suspect. "People with too much dopamine literally see things; they have suspicious thoughts. They see too many patterns in what is random," he explains. Parkinson's patients take dopamine to control their motor symptoms. "If you give them too much, they begin to see things like schizophrenics do," he points out. But the brain's role in one's belief system is much more complicated than that, he says. And his youthful wonder still manifests itself in his research. Based on an interest in out-of-body experiences, he's been exploring the phenomenon of phantom limbs. He discovered that patients register brain function in cortical areas when they "move" a phantom arm or leg, though not in the same areas that a person with limbs would activate if she were to imagine moving them.
His Insight: "I've always had to find the answers to my questions," Brugger says. As a child, he wondered how toothpaste could have alternating red and white stripes, so he cut open a tube. Similarly, he sliced into the question of paranormal beliefs to find answers that satisfied him and also advanced scientific knowledge about belief systems. If he met his younger self today, he says, "I would probably think, My God, how can he possibly believe in something beyond chance, just based on these few coincidences!" Nonetheless, Brugger "would still be willing to switch back to being a believer if someone could really convince me there is something." After all, he points out, believers as a group are happier than skeptics.
Mind's Eye Opened: Jill Bolte Taylor
Her Story: Jill Bolte Taylor became a neuroanatomist to try to understand the difference between her brother's brain—he is a schizophrenic—and her own. She taught at Harvard and worked in a lab, examining specimens of schizophrenic, schizoaffective, and bipolar brains, to determine their microcircuitry. Then, when she was just 37 years old, her life—and her life's work—changed. She woke with a pounding headache, "like when you bite into ice cream," she says. "It gripped me, then released, then gripped me again."
She tried to ignore it and started her day, hopping on her cardioglider, then heading to the shower, but she noticed that her body was slowing down, and her perceptions were altered. "Eventually, I realized I could not perceive where my body began and ended. I detected myself as being energy and felt as big as the universe." When her right arm became paralyzed, she realized that she was having a stroke. "I thought, This is so cool!" she says. She also realized she had to get help.
Riding in an ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, she curled into a fetal ball. "I thought that either the doctors would rescue me or this was my moment of transition." When she recovered from an operation that removed a golf-ball-size clot from her brain, "I was an infant in a woman's body," she says. She had to relearn how to walk, talk, read, write, and practice neuroanatomy. Her recovery took eight years.
Her Research: The stroke, which was caused by a congenital malformation, gave her unique insight into the workings of the brain. As the hemorrhage in her left hemisphere grew that morning, she found herself drifting in and out of reality. She lost her comprehension of numbers and her abilities to translate her thoughts into speech and define the boundaries of her body. She also felt an incredible sense of peacefulness as the practical chatter ("I have 10 minutes to take a shower"or "It's time to go to bed now")from her left hemisphere ceased.
As she recovered from the incident, she realized, "I had gained an understanding of the brain that academia could not teach me," because her right-brain consciousness had observed as the left-brain functions shut down one by one. She experienced firsthand how the right hemisphere thinks in pictures, while the left hemisphere collects information and thinks in language. "I'd watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process information," she says.
She also got special insight as to what goes on in the traumatized brain and how it can be rehabilitated. She chronicled her findings in My Stroke of Insight , and in a talk at the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference that has become a favorite on YouTube. She regularly shares her unique blend of scientific and personal knowledge in presentations to professional organizations.
She's using her observations to create a program that will help victims of stroke and other brain injuries in their rehabilitation efforts. "Currently, normal rehab for the nervous system is from the outside-in, whereby a person or machine creates the movement. I will be utilizing virtual reality and other forms of modern technology to re-teach the nervous system from the inside out," she says. Taylor is in the preliminary stages of testing the effectiveness of her new rehabilitation methods. "My big dream is to develop a Taylor Neurological Rehabilitation Center here in Bloomington for brain trauma ranging from coma to everyday injury," she says.
Her Insight: "Before, I had a fantasy that I was much more than neurocircuitry," she says. "But I am neurocircuitry—I can only recognize someone by their face because I have cells that perform that function." At the same time, she realized that she, and we all, can cognitively choose which circuits to run. For example, a burst of anger takes 90 seconds to come and go, unless you choose to rethink the thoughts and restimulate the response.
Though Taylor is still teaching neuroscience, she's also using her right brain more. During her recovery, she painted stained-glass brains to improve her motor skills and linear thinking, and also to express the artistry she felt had blossomed from her right brain. Though she wouldn't have chosen to experience a stroke, she says, "It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their brains from the inside?"
Twice as Intriguing: Nancy Segal
Her Story: Nancy Segal is a twin for whom her fraternal twin sister was long a source of fascination and consternation. "When I was young, I was very curious as to why my sister and I were so different, in terms of looks and personality, even though we were twins and had the same parents," she says. "She was a reader and I was very sociable. We would regularly complain that we had no one to play with, even though we were both right there in the house!" As a second-grader, Segal met a pair of identical twin girls. "They were very close, and I envied them. After that, I became very sensitive to the two types of twins."
As a psychology major at Boston University, Segal was assigned to write a paper on personal adjustment. She thought back to how she and her sister were put in separate classrooms after third grade—a positive situation for them—and decided to write about twins adjusting to school separations. "I just loved reading about twins. I couldn't get enough. Then I got an A on the paper, which was very reinforcing." When she entered graduate school at the University of Chicago, her fate as a twin researcher was sealed.
Her Research: "I'm perhaps most proud of the first twin study I did," Segal says. "It generated a lot of data I still analyze, so it forms the centerpiece of all the work that I have done after that."
Segal arranged for identical and fraternal twins to come into her lab, where she gave them puzzles to solve. "I knew my sister and I would have been competitive at a task like that," she says. "The identical twins worked so beautifully together; it was almost like a dance. Whereas, sure enough, the fraternals worked well individually but were very competitive when asked to work together." The identicals cooperated more easily, Segal says, because they came equipped with similar information- processing styles. Such comparable ways of thinking facilitates emotional harmony, too. "Many of my subsequent studies showed that identical twins have closer relationships than fraternals."
Segal's 30 years of research brim with amazing tales of twins separated at birth who then grew up to show the same preferences and habits, down to the way they hold their beer cans. Twins are walking laboratories, built for teasing out the impact of environment on genetic makeup, the constant interplay between the two notwithstanding. "Genes are not everything, of course, but when I see twins raised apart who end up so similar, it shows in a dramatic way that genes affect many aspects of our behaviors and personalities."
Her Insight: The very fact that drove Segal to become a twins researcher helped her career soar. "Because I was a twin, I found that twins opened up to me more. They immediately felt a kinship with me." This proved important in building a database of twins willing to be experimental subjects. Parsing the striking similarities among identical twins has only increased Segal's admiration for the differences between her and her sister, who is now a corporate attorney in New York City. "We both have certain strengths, and we're generous with those. As with any sibling, we've had periods of drifting apart, but the older I get, the more I appreciate her."
"Looking back, I can see that my sister and I selected different experiences within the same environment, and our parents responded to those choices. Your children bring you up, not the other way around."
Creative Downpour: Alice Flaherty
Her Story: As a neurologist specializing in movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease, Alice Flaherty had always been an enthusiastic note-taker; she'd even developed her own shorthand. But this was ridiculous. Ten days after she delivered twin boys so premature they couldn't survive, a grieving Flaherty was overtaken by a tsunami of ideas that she simply had to get down on paper. She'd awaken at 5 a.m. and shut herself in her home office, typing furiously. "Mostly psychological topics," she says now. "But with a ton of tangents."
A typical page might include her thoughts on Sanskrit and the Charlestown Navy Yard. While driving, she'd scribble ideas on her forearm. If she was in the bathroom, toilet paper became her tablet. She'd learned the name for her condition in medical school: hypergraphia, the overwhelming compulsion to write. For Flaherty, it lasted for four months, and produced about 82,000 words. Then, the episode was gone as quickly as it came. Throughout, "I was asking myself, 'What is wrong with your brain?'" She had to find out.
Her Findings: Hypergraphia is a form of hypercreativity: The brain generates, and the hand records, thousands of thoughts. Flaherty reviewed the relevant literature and published a model for the idea generation that upended the conventional wisdom about the right "creative" brain and the left "practical" brain.
Previous studies hinted that the hemispheric explanation of creativity was too simple. Flaherty went one step further, arguing that the connections between the frontal lobes and temporal lobes are more important, and that the limbic system also plays a critical role. Hypergraphia was known to be a trait of temporal lobe epileptics, so Flaherty suspected changes in that area could increase creative drive and facilitate idea generation. Patients with temporal lobe alterations could be prolific, although the quality of their output was typically low. "Most of what I wrote was garbage," Flaherty confesses. She also noted that frontal lobe deficits tend to squash creative output. They have been linked to depression and anxiety. Since the frontal lobe generates ideas, such dysfunction could mean fewer of them, as well as harsh judgments about each idea's worth. Lastly, she explored the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which decreases inhibition and can trigger the drive to communicate. Her conclusion: Frontotemporal interactions, with input from dopamine systems, control creative drive.
Flaherty says right-left hemisphere interactions seem to influence your chosen medium. They decide whether you become a writer or a sculptor, for example. But the drive to create is even more important than innate talent.
Her popular book about her experience, The Midnight Disease , brought scores of other hypergraphics to her office door. She learned, she says, that "people with mood liability get it especially in times of stress or excitement." For many, including Flaherty, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it is connected to the clinical state of mania.
Her Insight: With the help of her own doctors, Flaherty utilizes her dopamine findings to control recurring bouts of hypergraphia; she had another dramatic onslaught after the birth of her second set of twins, who are now 9 years old. She attributes her postpartum experiences to surges in estrogen and cortisol, which bind strongly in the temporal lobe. (Grief also floods the brain with cortisol.) "It's lovely to be able to write so much, but it's not a stable state for me," she explains. "It makes me jittery and agitated." She uses distractions, like washing dishes, to keep her hands busy, and also takes mood-stabilizers.
Now her mood swings are more like energy swings. "In late summer, I'm very zippy, then November comes and I slow down," she says. She keeps the muse in check so she can produce higher-quality writing, which has included 11 reviews and editorials, contributions to nine scientific articles, lyrics to a contemporary organ work, and three books.
Discovering "Naturals": Ognjen Amidzic
His Story: Ognjen Amidzic was born in Sarajevo, where chess is a national pastime. He became obsessed early on. "My mother wanted me to play piano, but chess interested me much more," he says. With the full support of his family and enormous personal motivation—he'd stay up entire nights analyzing chess positions—success came quickly. In his first local tournament, he finished in the top three in his age group. His long-term goal: to become a grandmaster. At age 19, he moved to Russia to attend university and train with the best players in the world.
There, he hit a wall. "I had huge problems playing those guys," he says. "I'd lose a lot of games and end up looking for a draw just to save myself." He sought out better coaches, but soon realized that while he could increase his knowledge, he'd reached the limit of his understanding. The losses piled up, with the final straw occurring during a tournament in Switzerland in 1993. Amidzic was in a strong position against his opponent, "Mr. Nobody, an amateur who liked to play chess," he says. "I thought, If I'm not able to do this now, this is the end." He lost the game and the tournament, and gave up competitive chess forever. What followed was a difficult period as Amidzic tried to figure out what had gone so wrong.
His Research: "I knew there must be some difference beyond training and motivation," he says, and he started his inquiry while working under two professors at the University of Konstanz in Germany. He brought in top chess players, buddies from his previous life, and used magnetoencephalography (which measured the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in their heads) to understand which parts of their brains they used the most while playing. "After some time, I found the difference," he says.
The game's grandmasters relied heavily on the frontal and parietal areas and much less on the temporal lobe; their breakdown was about 80/20. "We speculated that they were better able to store chunks of information (such as patterns or strategies) in their long-term memory while they were playing," says Amidzic, and then effortlessly shift it into their working memory.
The brain ratios did not change over time, despite additional training and tournaments. "I'm currently testing children to see if the proportion is established in childhood," he says. He's also studying young athletes; Amidzic is now in Brazil examining the cognitive abilities of would-be soccer stars. "At the very highest level, you must really understand and anticipate the game," he explains. The tests he has developed are available for a fee at his private research lab in Switzerland; they purportedly allow any aspiring chess player or volleyball star to gauge his chances of making it to the top.
His Insight: When Amidzic tested his brain function, he found that his own frontal/temporal proportion was 50/50. "I was able to create some long-term memories while playing, but not enough," he says. Had he known that earlier, he could have spared himself the enduring frustration of a lifelong dream denied. At least, he says, "I can keep other children from spending five or seven years training for something they won't be able to succeed in." He hopes to refine his tests further so they can point out where people's top talents lie. "I'm 100 percent focused on solving the problem that got me here," he says. As for chess itself, he has finally started playing again after a long hiatus, often on the computer and even in the occasional tournament. But now, he says, "it's just for fun."