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The Fragile Orchestra space holder

What causes a woman's own hand to try to strangle her?

How can a grown man recognize a carrot
but not be able to name it?

Such mysteries of the brain and mind are being
probed by Martha Farah and Todd Feinberg,
pioneers in the brave new world of neuropsychology.

By John Shea | Illustration by Laurent Cilluffo

IF DR. MARTHA FARAH'S grandfather hadn't taken a serious blow to the head many years ago, she might not have found herself studying how the mind works and how damage to the brain affects perception and behavior.
   As Farah tells it, her immigrant grandfather had a keen business acumen, which he used to make millions. During that heady time, the family had moved from Canada to a mansion in New York City -- only to return, penniless, when he lost it all. Until recently, she assumed that he had lost his fortune in the stock-market crash of 1929. But then she learned that his financial world had collapsed before Wall Street did.
   "My aunt told me that he'd been in a car accident, was knocked unconscious, and afterwards made a string of losing deals," recalls the 42-year-old Farah, now professor of psychology at Penn. "She said his accountant begged him to stop trying to make money: 'Mr. Farah, just put it in the bank and live on it!'" Unfortunately for his family, he did not take the advice.
   Farah also learned that her grandfather had developed a bad temper. Once at dinner, she says, "someone said something to annoy him, and he stood up, went to the china cabinet -- full of Limoges! -- picked it up, and hurled it across the dinner table."
   Farah, described by a colleague in the Medical Center as "one of the most outstanding cognitive neuroscientists in the world," immediately recognized the symptoms described by her aunt. "Neuropsychologically, this all hangs together," she says. "The poor judgment and the lack of impulse-control are familiar signs of prefrontal damage." People who have suffered frontal-lobe damage can seem quite unaffected on the surface -- normal speech, memory, and so forth. "Yet despite so many intact abilities, prefrontal damage often robs people of what you'd call 'judgment': the ability to weigh multiple factors in complex, real-life situations and act accordingly." Even "business sense" can vanish. The prefontal damage, she adds, "can also wreak havoc with their emotional life and their self-control" -- as everyone at the dinner table that night must have noted.
   "So you see," Farah concludes, "if the brain were organized differently, and prefrontal function were not so crucial to judgment and decision-making, I'd be a rich woman today!" And without that wolf at the door, she might never have found herself working in the psychology department, exploring the brain and the mind and the relationship between the two.
   Farah's own career is a case study in crossing disciplines -- even now, she has secondary appointments in the School of Medicine's departments of neurology and psychiatry -- and she feels very strongly that the interdisciplinary approaches are essential for the field to advance. Asked how she came to do what she's doing, she begins by saying she took "a pretty circuitous route." At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she majored both in metallurgy and philosophy. While enrolled in a course on the history of physics, she was especially taken by the major figures of the 17th century: "What I envied was that they were both doing the science and thinking hard about the whole process of doing science" -- and they were grappling with the basic elements of their field.
   So she decided to find "a nice, immature science" that offered her similar opportunities. "Psychology seemed to be it," she says, adding that she continues to see the field that way. "We've got pretty good beginnings, but there are still vast stretches of terrain we don't know."
   Part of what attracted Farah to cognitive psychology, which focuses on the study of the mind and information-processing, is that one is constantly being forced to go back to "the first principles." Researchers must continually confront the relation of data to theory -- both of which, she asserts, have changed radically in recent years. Much of traditional cognitive psychology involved studying "normal" subjects performing simplified tasks. While it is "quite amazing how much you can figure out with that very impoverished data," she says, a wider subject-group offers even more. Among neuropsychologists, she says, "probably the oldest, most time-honored" approach is to study the effects of brain lesions on cognition and behavior. While pinpointing those lesions once depended largely on autopsies, in the last 15 years, new noninvasive brain-imaging techniques like positron emis- sion tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have allowed scientists to observe the human brain in action and with more precision. Continued...
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/13/98