Lobotomy Cuts Both Ways (Diametrically Speaking)!

Surgery can shift the balance of the mind as predicted by the diametric model.

Posted May 25, 2015

Louis Badcock
Source: Louis Badcock

As I explained in a recent post, the imprinted brain theory proposes that different parts of the brain are built to the specification of conflicting sets of genes. Specifically, the cortex—and the frontal cortex in particular—is proposed to be the product of maternal genes, while paternal genes build the lower, limbic brain, just as you find in mice (above). And according to the diametric model of mental illness, an imbalance in maternal gene expression predisposes to psychosis, while the contrary situation, an imbalance in favour of the father’s genes, predisposes a person towards autism.

A major frustration for this theory is that you just can’t carry out experiments on people in the way you can on mice. But sometimes nature or medical intervention performs them nevertheless. A striking case in point was reported in the journal, Neurocase, in 2014.

Neurocase, 2014 Vol. 20, No. 6, 666–670
Source: Neurocase, 2014 Vol. 20, No. 6, 666–670

A 37-year-old woman who had been suffering from epileptic seizures since the age of two was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy which became more severe from the age of seventeen, with multiple daily seizures, despite taking three anti-epileptic drugs. Cerebral MRI showed cortical dysplasia in the right inferior temporal lobe for which the patient underwent right temporal lobectomy, including the amygdala and hippocampal region, along with regions of the lateral temporal lobe that were involved. The figure above shows a magnetic resonance image of the patient after surgery. The pathology demonstrated cortical dysplasia, and the patient was free of seizures after the surgical intervention. She was followed up for 13 years at the hospital and has been monitored closely since the operation. According to the account from which I am quoting:

A few weeks after the lobectomy, she told about the emergence of hyper empathy. She began to feel physical effects when experiencing emotions, especially sadness (“spin at the heart”) and anger (“esophageal unpleasant feeling”) when meeting with relatives or strangers, seeing a person on TV, or reading about a character in a novel. These effects were automatic and irrepressible…

Indeed, as the diametric model would predict:

She described an increased ability to decode others’ mental states, including their emotions, without necessarily experiencing any emotion (…). Her family confirmed this new impulsive empathy. This phenomenon remained unchanged for 13 years. Since surgery, she got married, had a child, and had a full-time job. She has a successful family and social life.

Nor was the evidence for this conclusion entirely anecdotal or subjective. The authors add that “Neuropsychological objective assessments … confirmed the emergence of hyper emotional empathy and affective theory of mind (cognitive empathy) with higher scores than controls.” 

Clearly, lobectomy is not always as destructive as it is sometimes made out to be! On the contrary, what this case demonstrates is that surgical removal of parts of the limbic/paternal brain and associated tissue (the “the amygdala and hippocampal region” mentioned above) can radically and permanently change a person’s cognitive orientation in the direction predicted by the diametric model: towards the psychotic/maternal side of the mentalistic continuum. Indeed, the patient’s “hyper-empathy” is a striking example of the hyper-mentalism that the diametric model proposes is the root symptom of psychosis—not to mention of the fact that psychotic tendencies, like autistic ones, can confer gifts as well as deficits.

Of course, this is just one case, and too much should not be read into it. But I could not let the matter drop without repeating a point I made in passing in an earlier post. This is that, if resection of the paternal brain can produce hyper-mentalistic outcomes like the “hyper-empathy” of this patient, then it is not surprising that corresponding surgery on the maternal brain—frontal lobotomy/leucotomy—resulted in the 1949 Nobel Prize for Medicine being awarded to António Moniz for what the citation called “the discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy” in relation to schizophrenia.

Clearly, considered from the diametric point of view, lobotomy cuts both ways!

(With thanks to Donna Hutchinson of Routledge Behavioral Science.)