Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 13, 2010

If you’re looking for someone to blame, Vicki Hinze is your culprit. She talked me into starting this. So here goes. What will I be ruminating about, you ask? Well, a wide range of topics from issues I raised in my books DEADLY ERRORS and DEAD HEAD, to my views on stories in the popular press that deal with brain function. Most people are intrigued with how the brain works. I know I am. It was the most compelling reason I chose to specialize in neurosurgery.

First a bit of background for readers who don’t know me. I started out in “academic” neurosurgery with the goal of becoming a beloved gray haired professor renown for his idiosyncrasies. To me, research was a natural extension of my childhood curiosity that caused me to dismantle my toys within hours of getting my hands on them.

Throughout medical school I worked on a psychiatrist’s research team. Thomas Holmes was his name and he was fascinated by the relationship between the life stress and of illness. We all intuitively realize this phenomenon because we’ve seen the obvious: a colleague who ends up in the Coronary Care Unit of the local medical center after completing a very difficult project. The day after we solemnly gather around the coffee maker and say, “It’s no wonder he got sick, just look at the hours he put it.” Interestingly, stress-induced illness usually occurs after, rather than during stress.

The field of medicine that studies with the effect of life change on illness onset is termed psychosomatic medicine. (Many people erroneously interpret the term psychosomatic as something entirely different.) However, in the example above other life events may have contributed more to producing the heart attack than just hard work and long hours in at his desk. The death of a pet, a daughter leaving for school, a balloon payment due. In fact, Holmes and Rahe developed a scale that rated the relative seriousness of numerous life events (

What interested Holmes greatly was the ways in which different personalities channel the deleterious effects of stress. By this, I mean that given the same amount of stress, why does one person end up ulcers and another person have a heart attack? Well, it has to do with how our individual bodies adapt and deal with change. And that is a effected by our psychological make up.

The idea that change, good or bad, is a stress to our bodies not new. Holmes was influenced by work started in the 40s. This concept has also been generalized from the individual to groups. In 1970 sociologist and futurist Alvin Tofler wrote, FUTURE SHOCK, (
a bestseller that dealt with the effects of change on society. Toffler's shortest definition of future shock is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time."

So what does this have to do with any of my novels? Well, DEAD HEAD is a story about a head kept alive without an attached body. When writing this story I often wondered what would happen to a person’s mind if the body were physically detached. I don’t know the answer. What about people who survive neck injuries as quadriplegics? Although they may not have use of their limbs, most of them still have nerves that supply information to the brain, such as the Vagus nerve, from various internal organs. And it is sensations from these nerves that help give our emotions “depth.” The study of psychosomatic medicine teaches us that the mind has huge effects on our body, but sometimes we forget that the body also huge effects on our minds.

I encourage readers to email me with questions about the brain that could result in some short, interesting posts.


  1. Allen, this is fascinating. I'm so glad you decided to blog! I have a question. (Big surprise, he says!)

    In a future post, can you talk about what happens when you lose a limb or an organ such as a kidney? What impact does that have on emotions? And what about phantom pains?

  2. My grandfather lost a finger in an accident, and he swore he could feel it years after it was amputated. I think they call that phantom pain, but he said it was real to him. How/why does the brain do that?

  3. This should be a great blog - right up my alley as I'm interested in both medicine and psychology. In my experience as a medical social worker, I found the relationship between a patient's stress and their medical issues often went hand-in-hand.

    I think this would be a great topic to discuss further. In any event, this should be a great blog!
    Cathy (Lee Carper)

  4. Allen, I've enjoyed your literary work - my favorite sibling, Mary O. gave me the vector some time ago. Yours is a fascinating world and I look forward to what you share of it.
    Best wishes!!! And what a nifty way to start a new year.
    -Jerry K.