Just in time for Halloween: How not to lose your mind

They say the mind is the first to go, but that may not be necessarily so. Could it all depend on your environment?

A great debate rages on which is more important in creating minds: nature or nurture. Are people pretty much born with their abilities, or is their environment more important in creating their minds? My wife says I make a “dumb face” sometimes — just like my father. Disregarding the fact she is making a personal attack on my father, does that mean I learned to make that dumb face from our earlier association, or did I just inherit the same facial musculature and enervation from him?

Do our children learn to be like us, or do they inherit our tendencies? I have one son who has apparently learned, or inherited, nearly every bad trait I have. Of course, that’s only one or two. Still, my wife thinks we are an awfully lot alike — at least when one of those traits surfaces. The good traits he got from his mother, I’m told.

We have one daughter who is so unique among our family members that I always told her she was adopted ... but they brought her back. She became a musician instead of something sensible like a scientist. She inherited all my good traits except that one.

As far as I know, science hasn’t been able to satisfactorily answer this age-old question. However, scientists have made advances in how to keep the mind intact. It seems clear that depends on the environment.

The oldest, known, intact human brain, estimated to be over 2,000 years old, was recently discovered in England. It wasn’t just lying along the side of the road or something. It was still encased in the skull, although the skull was no longer attached to the body. It isn’t clear whether the person couldn’t remember where he left it, or whether the body may have been stolen.

Archeologists think it is the brain of a 30-year-old man. He seems to have lost his head, but not his mind, when he was hanged and then decapitated. While this is not a proven fact, it would explain the situation. This seems like an awfully lot of detail to be garnered from one simple brain, but it does give hope to some of us who worry about losing our memory, or our bodies.

Scientists reached this conclusion because the vertebrae attached to the skull had markings consistent with hanging and decapitation. It isn’t clear which came first, although reason would suggest the hanging part. (Scientists are always reasonable, except when they aren’t.) They also report that the brain was odorless and had a resilient, tofu-like consistency. (Yes, I think that qualifies as too much information.)

Brain tissue is usually the first tissue to decompose after death. I suppose this is the origin of the phrase “the mind is the first to go.” Apparently, a series of fortuitous events (well, for the brain and science, not the victim) led to the preservation of the brain.

The assumption is that shortly after he lost it, his head must have somehow ended up in a water-logged pit, free of oxygen. The quick burial and continued submersion, into conditions not suited for bacterial growth and decomposition, apparently allowed the brain to be preserved.

Now, the following observations would obviously support the environmental factors for mind-loss theory. The hanging may have pinched closed any opening created by decapitation, through which bacteria could enter the cranium. The cool, oxygen-free environment probably slowed decomposition.

So we are left with a greater understanding concerning the debate over nature and nurture. If you are worried about losing your mind, it appears that the environment is for sure the determining factor. If you are serious about preserving your mind, avoid any environment that would lead to hanging, decapitation and/or bacterial contamination. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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