Blog Post

Conjoining Brain, Mind, Body, Culture: Response to Susan Dominus' NYT on Conjoined Twins

New York Times writer Susan Dominus spent five days in Vernon, British Columbia, to write a lengthy article, "Inseparable,"  on Tatiana and Krista Hogan, two "healthy, happy four year-olds who share everything, maybe even their thoughts."  I admit I read this story with fear and trembling, positive that here, once again, would be yet another piece that reduced the complexities of mind, brain, body, culture, family, and thinking to some reductionist and mechanistic commentary about neural networks.  I had no reason to fear.   Dominus's piece is both intriguing and humane, incisive and inspiring in the intriquing questions it raises (rather than definitive in the ones it answers). 

 

Disclaimer:  my #2 intellectual pet peeve  is when social scientists reduce human complexity to one all-inclusive explanation or factor only.   It is my #1 intellectual pet peeve when great and complex natural or computational science is reduced to some reductive social science argument.  Case closed.   I  bought the NYTimes first thing this morning, even though I knew, in my heart, this was a set up, that I'd have to blog, yet again, a critical response.   Wrong.   This article is so smart I immediately wanted to write Susan Dominus a fan letter.   There were myriad opportunities to lose one's way (especially in the "freak show" thicket the media has trumpeted about this case).  She never did.  

 

You can read the essay in its entirety here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a...

 

Here are a few sentences that are exactly right in their complexity:  "An incomparable resource for neuroscientists interested in tracing neural pathways, in the malleability of the brain and in the construction of the self, Tatiana and Krista are also a study in the more expansive neural system of sociology: the feedback loop of how their family responds to difference, how the world outside the walls of their home responds to the familys response and how the girls respond in turn."    That is almost a textbook example of how we need to think of brain science in the future, not as about the brain about about humanity, with those "feedback loops" so much a part of the learning, interactive conversation about what is or is not a brain and what doing this or that "does" to the brain. 

 

Here is another paragraph that made me want to cheer: " A crayon drops to the floor, and I move to pick it up, imagining how laborious it would be for them to move away from the table as one, with Tatiana leaning awkwardly to allow her sister to crouch to the ground. When I reach for it, however, the crayon is not there. It is already in Kristas hand, as if by magic. My foot do it! she tells me. Neither girl could draw the letter X, but if there were a standardized test for grasping with toes, the Hogan twins would surely come up in the 99th percentile."

 

Yes.   Our norms are so rigid that we forget that turn and twist.   Dominus' tells a story not just about "the brain" but about mind and values.  In this case, the Hogans are people who consider themselves to be outsiders (Felicia Hogan, the mother, says her own mother paid for her piercing when she was 12) and who do not see their lovely daughters as "freaks."  Their comfort with their daughters' lives is a saving grace--and writer Dominus understands that and champions it (while also, more soberly, addressing a certain looseness about medical procedures (such as wearing eye patches to strengthen the girls' eyes) that seems almost the flipside or the logical conclusion of their general acceptance of the girls' condition as simply part of who they are.  

 

I'm going to make a personal aside here.   My interest in Tatiana and Krista is partly because I read everything about the brain that I can and partly because, as a child, I happened to live across the street from conjoined twins.  It was in Chicago.  I grew up near River View, a huge amusement park, and the father of one of my best friends worked there, and rented an apartment in their building to the twins.   They seemed very old to me but, since I was maybe seven or eight, "old" could have been twenty-five or thirty-five or forty-five.  They were conjoined shoulder to shoulder, not head to head like Tatiana and Krista, but also shared vital organs in a way that meant one of the women was considerably huskier, healthier, stronger than the other.   They also, like Tatiana and Krista, had different personalities, one more assertive and angrier than the other.   My friend Skeet and I once went with them to the observation deck of the Prudential Building, at the time the tallest building in the city, and the twins got into a loud fight.  One set of parents in the elevator with their kids shusshed the twins as if they were children, not adults, but that only made them argue more.    Even now, looking back on that incident, what I remember was the look of sheer unmitigated horror and something like anger expressed by the other so-called "normal" people in that elevator.   Skeet was a few years older than me and Black (or "half Black" as his parents always said).  I was white.   The twins were what, then, were called "Siamese," and I guess all four of us, together, were quite a sight for the suburban parents.  Freaks, is a word someone used.  And, indeed, the twins worked in the "freak show" at River View as did a pair of male conjoined twins who also came to River View around the same time.

 

I was in graduate school, studying Melville's The Confidence Man in which Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins brought around by Barnum and Bailey, make an appearance the first time I realized how unusual it was to have actually known and spent time with and cared about conjoined twins.  A classmate asked "They were a hoax right?  There aren't really conjoined people, are there?"  The question astonished me--I'm not sure it ever occurred to me that our friendship with the twins (we always called them "the twins") was unusual.   Nor did they seem any freakier than most adults at the time, but the shame and shock in the elevator made me aware that my view was not shared.  It made me think a lot about "norms," about how we set up expectations of what is or isn't natural or normal, and then insist loudly on defining that which we don't understand as "freakish." 

 

That, of course, is Melville's point, and it is what comes through so powerfully in the Hogan's story, where allowing their daughters to be as active and happy as their bodies allow is incomparably more important than allowing them to be experimented upon by scientists who want to use their unusual qualities to explain "how the brain works."   In that leap, from the experience of these remarkable girls in a remarkable family, to all of us, to how our brain works, lies a world of assumptions too easily glossed over.  Why Susan Dominus deserves a Pulitzer for this fine story is she refuses to gloss over those issues, including the meta-scientific ones of how we use the outlier "case study" to generalize to "everyone else," as if everyone else is any more singular than the unusual case being examined.

 

The view of the conjoined twins in this New York Times piece is as much about their "lot" in life as it is about neurobiology.  What, exactly, is their "lot"?  And who decides?   Freaks or unique?  They were "born that way"  as Lady Gaga, assuming the mantel of eccentricity and originality,  insists.    What way?   That is the question.  And why I appreciate this article so much is that it deliberately, carefully leaves the question open.  It underscores that how we ask the question partly determines the answer.  Brain?  Mind?  Body? Family? Culture? Society? Values?    The answer, in this splendid essay, is conjoined.

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Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).   For more information, visit www.nowyouseeit.net or order on Amazon.com by clicking on the book below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

 


 

 

 

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