Maestripieri’s informative narrative on the lives of the macaques—peppered with amusing anecdotes and witty observations—leaves no doubt he is the right person to tell their story. But he sometimes takes too far the idea that human interactions can be reduced to the daily risk-reward calculations that underlie rhesus behavior (should I fight? should I grant sex?), ignoring evidence that culture shapes our brains and actions. The result is his occasional use of improbable and even offensive stereotypes, such as the notion that all women use sex (or should, if they do not) to exploit men’s power.
Nevertheless, Macachiavellian Intelligence is an intriguing departure from the currently vogue studies of animal benevolence—chimps are our moral progenitors, capuchins are exemplars of fairness, and empathetic rats show the roots of human compassion. Maestripieri convinces us that rhesus macaques, on the other hand, help to explain some of the darker qualities underlying the human success story.
DVD. PBS Direct, 2008. Directed by Barak Goodman and John Maggio.
Lobotomy, a gruesome brain operation purported to treat intractable mental illness, has emerged as one of the ghastliest failures of modern medicine. That this operation achieved such prominence even among reputable physicians during the 1940s remains a perplexing social mystery.
Grappling with this baffling saga, directors Barak Goodman and John Maggio have produced a fascinating documentary that explores with compassion and a critical eye the unfolding of this tragic tale of human agony, experimentation, hope and failure. Based on a book of the same title by journalist Jack El-Hai (Wiley, 2005), Goodman and Maggio’s The Lobotomist presents an impressively evenhanded interpretation of the legacy of Walter J. Freeman, the physician who popularized the procedure in the U.S.
In the early 20th century intractably ill mental patients faced a lifetime in filthy, dingy asylums as their hopeless families and physicians searched desperately for some way—any way—to lessen their agonies. Freeman, an ambitious neurologist from a prominent medical family, became convinced that operating on the brain to sever connections between the “rational” frontal lobe and the “primitive” thalamus would stop unmanageable emotions from disturbing patients’ reasoning faculties. His initial experiments in the late 1930s produced controversial results, relieving some patients of violence or fear yet rendering them docile and childlike. Demand swelled until the early 1950s, when long-term studies revealed the procedure’s severe side effects and the advent of antipsychotic drugs rendered lobotomy—and its purveyor—obsolete.
A one-hour documentary cannot provide the same level of detail as a book can, but words on a page pale in comparison to the emotional impact of archival footage showing lobotomies performed on live patients with an ice pick and a common hammer. Goodman and Maggio restrain themselves from exploiting the story’s grotesque nature, however; they portray accurately and empathetically the complexity of this American fiasco. In the end, the viewer feels appropriate sadness and confusion over the ironies surrounding Freeman, his patients, their families and mainstream medicine as they all struggled to understand the so-called miracle cure.
Blogs on the Brain
by Nikhil Swaminathan
Scientific American Mind offers up a hearty helping of science, but for the most voracious brain buffs six issues a year may not be enough. Fortunately, plenty of extra crumbs of brain candy can be picked up online in the blogosphere.
Any well-stocked bookmark folder has to include Cognitive Daily, the brainchild of cognitive psychologist Greta Munger and her writer husband, Dave. In a lyrical tone, the Mungers dutifully break down two to three pieces of peer-reviewed research per week on topics relating to everyday life, such as whether using red ink to grade papers impairs learning or how adopted children acquire new languages. On “Casual Fridays,” the pair conduct mini studies, quizzing readers on everything from whether they have perfect pitch to who makes the messes in their home.