Boris Johnson missed the point on IQ – gifted children are failed by the system | Deborah Orr
From politicians to psychologists, too many people fail to understand how high intelligence can isolate people, especially children
In all the furore surrounding Boris Johnson's comments on IQ, one of the many respects in which he was utterly wrong has been barely mentioned. In fairness, this isn't entirely Johnson's fault. It is an endemic misunderstanding, the assumption that people with IQs over 130 are likely to sail through life, effortlessly achieving "success".
It's been good to see neuroscience getting a popular airing this week. One can certainly complain that a study from the University of Pennsylvania into mental illness in children and young adults, widely reported as having demonstrated brain differences between males and females, has been "reduced to pop psychology". But, in truth, neuroscience does not penetrate our general culture nearly enough.
Even experienced psychologists, let alone "pop" ones, often fail to understand how high intelligence can isolate people, especially children. Yet, neuroscience tells us the difference between "normal" and "gifted" brains is significant. A 2006 study from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, found that more intelligent children "demonstrate a particularly plastic cortex, with an initial accelerated and prolonged phase of cortical increase, which yields to equally vigorous cortical thinning by early adolescence". The study also demonstrated that maximum cortical thickness came at around five-and-a-half for its "average" group, eight-and-a-half for its "high" group and just past 11 for its "superior" group. The more intelligent a child is, the later their cortex will start thinning and the later it will become fully "sculpted", as researcher Jay Giedd puts it. This all fits with previous psychological theories. Gifted children, it is accepted, exhibit "asynchronous development", as described by the Columbus Group in 1991. This causes them all kinds of problems, not least because an 11-year-old can be one minute regaling captivated adults with their thoughts on the banking crisis, and the next throwing a tantrum because everyone else in the class can tie their shoelaces, while they can't.
This theory incorporates an older theory, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, posited by the Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who suggested that gifted kids are prone to one or more of five "overexcitabilities": psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual and imaginational.
Time and research has certainly borne him out on the first two. Gifted children are prone to learning disabilities – dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, all those conditions that cynics are prone to insist are manifestations of little Tarquin's parents' inability to accept that he isn't as clever as they want him to be. But lot of the time little Tarquin's parents are not deluded, not at all.
Gifted children tend to have particular problems with sensory processing, sensory modulation and dyspraxia. [pdf download] They are also more likely to be overwhelmed by their over- and sometimes underdeveloped senses, with their brain failing accurately to "read" what their bodies are telling them about their environment. This is not surprising, since they have so many neural pathways to choose from, in their big, messy cortices, and so much sculpting to do.
Sometimes these symptoms are merely a consequence of asynchronicity, and will sort themselves out. Dyslexia, for example, sometimes just disappears. But sometimes a gifted child with these deficits will become a gifted adult with these deficits. The cliches – absent-minded professor, computer genius who can't drive a car, artistic giant with explosive temperament – chime with what neuroscience tells us.
Asynchronous development can also mean a child's intellect is way ahead of his executive functions, the parts of the brain that manage cognitive processes. This will make him disorganised, unable to grasp spoken instructions or challenged by mental arithmetic. Even if his brain is generating ideas thick and fast, he may struggle to put them on paper.
In the US, it's more common for a child to be recognised as being gifted and also learning-disabled. They call it being "twice exceptional" or "2e". In Britain, however, virtually the only organisation that is really up on what they call "dual or multiple exceptionality" is the charity Potential Plus UK.
What all this means, contrary to Johnson's banal non-observations, is that children with IQs of more than 130 can be very vulnerable. The selective private sector education system that blessed us with Johnson and his colleagues, and also the grammar school system he lauds, are not the infallible machines for attracting the finest minds he thinks they are. On the contrary, they test children before the smartest have even stopped growing, let alone started sculpting their neural pathways, and when their mental abilities may still be highly asynchronous. Someone who is good at maths and English will pass their 11-plus, while someone who is highly able at one but – as yet – terrible at the other, perhaps due to a passing learning disability caused by asyncronicity, will fail. Selective education identifies the children who are good at everything already, not the children with the greatest learning potential.
In the state system, these children do not always thrive either. They are often bored in class, especially if they have an unrecognised learning disability. Even if it's recognised, a child may not qualify for extra help if that disability is not driving their academic performance below a bureaucratically fixed point. Which is like saying that a child doesn't need a prosthetic leg because he hops quite fast. If a child has sensory processing issues, too, then just the stimulation of large classrooms will drive them to distraction, or "sensory overload", causing an "emotional meltdown".
Even for a clever child without such difficulties, school has essentially been designed to encourage them to become independent learners. A gifted child is an independent learner already, but is still expected to sit in class for 15 years being coaxed into thinking for herself. The writer, Jenn Ashworth, has described what torture all this was, without quite realising what she was describing. But Ashworth was one of the lucky ones. She found her own way, pretty much avoiding school altogether from 11 to 15, then gritting her teeth to get the exams that would take her to Cambridge.
Many gifted children are at risk of underachievement, or even of leaving education, entirely unaware that their problem is not that they are stupid, but that they're clever. Potential Plus UK warns that vulnerable groups of students include, among others, those in low socio-economic groups, black and minority groups, and those with English as an additional language.
Yet, even the Tarquins of this world are hard to advocate for. The US psychologist James T Webb warns that gifted children are often misdiagnosed as having behavioural, emotional or mental disorders. Even when they do have such disorders, the chances are that the disorder will be attended to, but not the underlying ultra-brightness. They will be pathologised, rather than understood and supported.
There is indeed a male-female brain difference relevant to this matter. Female brains have larger basal ganglia, which help the frontal lobe with executive functioning. As Giedd says: "Almost everything is more common in boys – autism, dyslexia, learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette's … girls, by having larger basal ganglia, may be afforded some protection from these illnesses."
So, as Britain's politicians ponder the reasons why the UK is so far down the PISA mathematics list, they might want to consider funding some research from some paediatric neuropsychologists. Their endless arguments over whether it's all the fault of the left or the right are unproductive. The answers lie in the brains of children, not of politicians.
Gender differences all in the mind | @guardianletters
According to your report (Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal, 2 December): "Maps of neural circuitry show women's brains are designed for social skills and memory, men's for perception and co-ordination." Yet another deeply confused "hard-wired brain" story. It has received much comment, not least for the empirical mismatch between the data and the conclusion, given that the cited study apparently provides "strong evidence for behavioural similarities between the sexes". But there is something even more basic at stake.
Will scientists, journalists and readers wake up to this truism: if the mind is the brain, any mental difference will be a brain difference. Suppose there are some actual mental differences between men and women, whatever their prior causes. (Hard to imagine training up half of humanity one way, half another, without creating some differences between them.) There will then be some neural differences. Suppose you have two televisions, whose images are different. You call in the technician, who trumpets the discovery that they differ in their pattern of pixels. That bit we knew already: no difference in the images without a difference in the pixels. Same for ourselves: no difference in states of mind without a difference in states of brain. That doesn't mean it has to be that way, or is designed to be that way. Even if your mind is your brain, that doesn't mean "your brain made you do it", as if the "you" were a different being. Let's not fall for this confusion, or we'll take what happens to be the case and freeze it. We'll take differences, however they may have come about, and make them seem inevitable and appropriate. We don't need this deterministic fairy-tale. It's bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all.
Professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
Professor John Dupré
Visiting professor of gender studies, University of Cambridge
• Obviously, then, men are better drivers, having superior "motor skills".
Electric brain stimulation induces feeling of determination – video
A patient describes a sensation of perseverance when a particular part of his brain is stimulated
'Determination' can be induced by electrical brain stimulation | Ian Sample
Applying an electric current to a particular part of the brain makes people feel a sense of determination, say researchers
Doctors in the US have induced feelings of intense determination in two men by stimulating a part of their brains with gentle electric currents.
The men were having a routine procedure to locate regions in their brains that caused epileptic seizures when they felt their heart rates rise, a sense of foreboding, and an overwhelming desire to persevere against a looming hardship.
The remarkable findings could help researchers develop treatments for depression and other disorders where people are debilitated by a lack of motivation.
One patient said the feeling was like driving a car into a raging storm. When his brain was stimulated, he sensed a shaking in his chest and a surge in his pulse. In six trials, he felt the same sensations time and again.
Comparing the feelings to a frantic drive towards a storm, the patient said: "You're only halfway there and you have no other way to turn around and go back, you have to keep going forward."
When asked by doctors to elaborate on whether the feeling was good or bad, he said: "It was more of a positive thing, like push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this."
A second patient had similar feelings when his brain was stimulated in the same region, called the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC). He felt worried that something terrible was about to happen, but knew he had to fight and not give up, according to a case study in the journal Neuron.
Both men were having an exploratory procedure to find the focal point in their brains that caused them to suffer epileptic fits. In the procedure, doctors sink fine electrodes deep into different parts of the brain and stimulate them with tiny electrical currents until the patient senses the "aura" that precedes a seizure. Often, seizures can be treated by removing tissue from this part of the brain.
"In the very first patient this was something very unexpected, and we didn't report it," said Josef Parvizi at Stanford University in California. But then I was doing functional mapping on the second patient and he suddenly experienced a very similar thing."
"Its extraordinary that two individuals with very different past experiences respond in a similar way to one or two seconds of very low intensity electricity delivered to the same area of their brain. These patients are normal individuals, they have their IQ, they have their jobs. We are not reporting these findings in sick brains," Parvizi said.
The men were stimulated with between two and eight milliamps of electrical current, but in tests the doctors administered sham stimulation too. In the sham tests, they told the patients they were about to stimulate the brain, but had switched off the electical supply. In these cases, the men reported no changes to their feelings. The sensation was only induced in a small area of the brain, and vanished when doctors implanted electrodes just five millimetres away.
Parvizi said a crucial follow-up experiment will be to test whether stimulation of the brain region really makes people more determined, or simply creates the sensation of perseverance. If future studies replicate the findings, stimulation of the brain region – perhaps without the need for brain-penetrating electrodes – could be used to help people with severe depression.
The anterior midcingulate cortex seems to be important in helping us select responses and make decisions in light of the feedback we get. Brent Vogt, a neurobiologist at Boston University, said patients with chronic pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder have already been treated by destroying part of the aMCC. "Why not stimulate it? If this would enhance relieving depression, for example, let's go," he said.
Does neuromarketing live up to the hype? | Pete Etchells
Pete Etchells: We increasingly seem to be bombarded with adverts and PR stunts which make grandiose claims about our brains. But the actual science isn’t there yet.
So my mushy head is 'hardwired' for girly things, is it? If this is science, I am Richard Dawkins | Suzanne Moore
Why do studies reinforce stereotypes about the male versus female brain, when the truth is that we are not so very different?
If you cut my head in half, out would spill sugar and spice and all things nice, obviously. The part of the brain that does parking would be small, but the part that organises cupcakes and friendship would fizz like sparkling rose. Because I am a girl whose mushy head is "hardwired" for girly things.
As ever, when I see the latest stuff on gender differences in the brain, I feel that I am barely female. Some parts of my brain have gone rogue. But before anyone gets out a soldering iron to rewire me, let's um … think about it.
What we are told is that neuroscience is actually a mass of disciplines: neurology, physiology, psychology, molecular biology and genetics, all of them ramped up by new ways of imaging the brain. Neuroscience has to be social, as we are social animals, and yet it stumbles over "a theory of mind". Are we simply a collection of brain processes that we experience as thoughts and feelings? If we are going to locate these inside the brain, we need some philosophical models too. It is all pretty epiphenomenal for my fluffy little brain. Which is smaller than most men's.
My brain also lives in a female body and clearly there are differences between men and women. But the latest overhyped study, which suggested that – guess what? – men are good at structure and co-ordinated action (map-reading?) and female brains are designed to facilitate communication (everything else?), is about as plausible as the finding reported in one notorious Daily Mail story that women were programmed by evolution to be "bitchy". This was based on showing 46 women in Canada pictures of other women in tight T-shirts. If this is science, I am Richard Dawkins.
Neuroscience is just as useful as evolutionary biology when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes in a pop-psychology manner. Are you right-brained (creative, intuitive) or left-brained (organised, systematic)? Do a quick quiz to see, rather than understand that this dichotomy has been fairly comprehensively debunked. The interaction between the hemispheres is what counts, but this is less marketable stuff. Such personality tests are sold to anxious parents, used in business recruitment and targeted at schools. All of them confirm what we already know, not what we could know.
The great insights now are around the plasticity of the brain, how new pathways can be formed even after damage, and how they are formed through experience. Yet there is a focus on imagery and which bits of the brain light up, because it is whizzy and fun. Spending a lot of time a while back with neurosurgeons after a close relative suffered a head injury taught me that brain scans are still blunt intruments, that we don't know sometimes if some functions can be taken over by other areas of the brain, if nerves can repair. It taught me that coma is still a mysterious state from which one does not wake up, but rather swims slowly to the surface. All these very clever doctors were more than happy to talk about what they did not know about the brain.
Now, though, neuroscience has achieved a quasi-religious status. There are, of course, drug companies waiting to improve our mental states; the military is also heavily invested in some of the research, as are those who think we will soon be able to predict "criminality" and lock people up before they do anything. Right now, we have politicians basically telling us that intelligence is innate and inequality therefore predetermined. There are, of course, many brilliant scientists who are appalled at this.
Cordelia Fine, for instance, is wonderful at debunking the neuroscience of sex differences, which began in the mid-19th century. These differences were used to argue against giving women the vote. Now they are being used to confirm that women are empathetic, but not power hungry or good at maths. Something as complicated as language does not live in one part of the brain, whether that language is poetry or maths. What Fine dubs "neurosexism" explains female inferiority, lower pay and the lack of women in public life. Is this inferiority located in individual brains or in culture?
Indeed, the latest debate on education shows that we absolutely need a combination of creativity and analytical skills; the binary of left/right brain thinking is inadequate. Of course we can find studies that reinforce gender stereotypes and use a determinist model of the brain. All kinds of self-help books are flogged on the back of this.
How hormones change brain organisation has yet to be fully explained. Many people feel neither male nor female. We see more autism in men, more Alzheimer's in women – and all of this is to be explored. But the idea of plasticity, the ability to change our ways of thinking, gets lost in the new neuro-mythology, which, as authors Hilary Rose and Steven Rose have argued, ignores the ways in which "culture and education shape neuro-cognitive function".
The truth is our brains are much more similar than they are different. That's not a headline you will ever read, is it? "Men and women: much the same!"
• Comments for this article will be switched on on Thursday morning.
Male and female brains: the REAL differences
Dean Burnett: Despite criticism of the recent high-profile study, some differences between male and female brains can't be denied
Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal
Maps of neural circuitry show women's brains are suited to social skills and memory, men's perception and co-ordination
Scientists have drawn on nearly 1,000 brain scans to confirm what many had surely concluded long ago: that stark differences exist in the wiring of male and female brains.
Maps of neural circuitry showed that on average women's brains were highly connected across the left and right hemispheres, in contrast to men's brains, where the connections were typically stronger between the front and back regions.
Ragini Verma, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes, with men's brains apparently wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions, and women's for social skills and memory, making them better equipped for multitasking.
"If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there's a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better," Verma said. "Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved – they will listen more."
She added: "I was surprised that it matched a lot of the stereotypes that we think we have in our heads. If I wanted to go to a chef or a hairstylist, they are mainly men."
The findings come from one of the largest studies to look at how brains are wired in healthy males and females. The maps give scientists a more complete picture of what counts as normal for each sex at various ages. Armed with the maps, they hope to learn more about whether abnormalities in brain connectivity affect brain disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.
Verma's team used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to map neural connections in the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged eight to 22. The neural connections are much like a road system over which the brain's traffic travels.
The scans showed greater connectivity between the left and right sides of the brain in women, while the connections in men were mostly confined to individual hemispheres. The only region where men had more connections between the left and right sides of the brain was in the cerebellum, which plays a vital role in motor control. "If you want to learn how to ski, it's the cerebellum that has to be strong," Verma said. Details of the study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds.
"It's quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are," Ruben Gur, a co-author on the study, said in a statement. "Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex-related."
Love hormone helps autistic children bond with others, study shows
Researchers find that nasal sprays laced with oxytocin help youngsters interact better, but the effects do not last long
A nasal spray laced with the "love hormone" oxytocin could help children with autism learn to handle social situations better, US researchers claim. Scans of children with autistic spectrum disorder showed that a single dose of the chemical improved brain responses to facial expressions, a shift that could make social interactions feel more natural and rewarding for them.
The scientists behind the research said a course of oxytocin might boost the success of behavioural therapies that are already used to help people with autism learn to cope with social situations.
"Over time, what you would expect to see is more appropriate social responding, being more interested in interacting with other people, more eye contact and more conversational ability," said Kevin Pelphrey, director of the child neuroscience lab at Yale University.
Autism is a developmental disorder seen in more than one in 100 people. The condition affects individuals in different ways, but is characterised by difficulties in social interaction and communication. So far, there is no established treatment for the social problems caused by autism.
Researchers at Yale have studied the brain chemical oxytocin as a potential treatment for the social impairments caused by autism because it plays a crucial role in bonding and trust. Results have been mixed, though: one recent study found no significant benefit for youths given the chemical over several days. But Pelphrey said oxytocin might help the brain learn from social interactions; it would work best when used with therapies that encourage people with autism to engage more socially, he said. "Our study shows that oxytocin affects the brain and opens up the possibility that, when combined with behavioural treatments, it works like a social enhancer," he said.
The scientists used a technique called functional MRI to scan the brains of 17 youths aged eight to 16 with autism while they looked at images of cars or the eyes of people expressing various emotions. The scans were given 45 minutes after the participants inhaled a placebo or oxytocin through a nasal spray.
The scans showed that reward circuitry in the children's brains behaved more normally after a snort of oxytocin, being more active when the person was looking at faces and less active when viewing the inanimate cars. The study appears in the latest issue of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.
"If this is replicated, it suggests that oxytocin might treat something for which we don't have a treatment in autism, and that's the core social motivation," Pelphrey told the Guardian.
He warned that it was too early to use oxytocin as a treatment for the social difficulties caused by autism and cautioned against buying oxytocin from suppliers online. "We don't want them running out on the basis of this study or any other and trying oxytocin at home. There is no telling what they are buying. We are nowhere near thinking this is a ready treatment. It needs more follow up," he said.
"This is an important new study in identifying changes in brain activity in key regions of the brain involved in social cognition in autism following oxytocin administration," said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University.
A surprising finding however is that oxytocin nasal spray did not change performance on the social cognitive task. Nor is it clear yet if oxytocin only has benefits for people with autism, and no unwanted side effects. Finally, oxytocin effects only last about 45 minutes, so there may be practical considerations as to whether this could be used as a treatment.
"From a scientific perspective, this study has a lot of evidence from animal and human work to justify serious attention, but more research is needed. Doctors should be cautious about the clinical potential of this hormone until we know much more about its benefits and risks, in much larger studies."
Uta Frith, who studies autism at University College London, said: "According to this study, oxytocin may have an effect of making faces more interesting as assessed by greater activity in brain structures concerned with reward evaluation. Disappointingly, this effect is seen only in brain activity and not in behaviour. Demonstrating an effect on behaviour will be critical if nasal spray treatment is to be of any value."
How the visual language of comics could have its roots in the ice age
Psychologist and comics obsessive Neil Cohn believes cartoons have a sophisticated language all their own and a heritage that goes back to cave art. Here he breaks it down
Neil Cohn's love of comic strips began in his family's attic. In one of his earliest memories, he recalls his dad climbing the stairs and pulling down a box of 1960s Batman and Superman books that he had stashed away from his own childhood. To Cohn's four-year-old self, it was as if they'd been imported from a strange and foreign place. "They had this kind of mystery to them," he says. Instantly he was hooked.
It was not long before he became a compulsive comic artist himself; in his teens he even started his own mail-order comic company. As he set about his creations, he would often wonder how the brain makes the huge cognitive leap to piece together a story from the fragmentary, stylised pictures on his drawing board.
Now a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, Neil Cohn is finally getting the chance to answer that question, as he carefully dismantles comic strips such as Peanuts. His theory, presented in The Visual Language of Comics (Bloomsbury) next month, is provocative. At a neural level, he says, the pictures of comic strips are processed as another form of language, with their own vocabulary, grammar and syntax.
"Human beings only have three ways to convey our thoughts," he explains. "We create sounds using our mouths; we can move our bodies with hands and faces; and we can draw things… My idea is that whenever these meaning-making channels get structured in a coherent sequence, then you end up with a type of language." If he is right, the hidden logic of cartoon panels could provide new vistas on art, language and creative development.
Cohn's theory builds on a growing acceptance that the brain's language toolkit is a kind of Swiss army knife for many different kinds of expression, such as music or dance. In some ways the ties with art should be stronger, however – since, unlike music, pictures encode a definite meaning. "Drawing has always been about communication – to express an idea in your head to other people," says Cohn.
The drive to tell stories with pictures certainly has deep roots. Stone age paintings in places such as the Chauvet cave in France seem to show scenes of galloping horses and pouncing lions, using techniques that would be familiar to graphic artists today. More advanced picture narratives appeared in works such as the Bayeux tapestry and Paupers' Bibles. In some indigenous Australian cultures, sand drawings are used as a regular part of discourse; in fact, drawing is so entwined with speech in the language of these cultures that you can't be considered fluent if you don't know the appropriate pictures.
Before Cohn began his research, however, few serious analyses of comic strips existed. One writer who dissected the way strips are constructed was Scott McCloud in in his landmark book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, published in 1993. "That book really got me thinking about it, as a teenager," says Cohn. His interest would remain a hobby, however, and after school he embarked on an undergraduate course in Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley. As part of his degree, he decided to take a linguistics course. Suddenly his musings took a whole new shape. "I noticed that all these things that happen in language were the same as the things I understood in comics," he says.
Comic strips do, after all, have the basic structure of language, with a hierarchy of elements that can be combined with infinite variety. The building blocks of this hierarchy are a "visual vocabulary" of signs and symbols. That might include speech bubbles, motion lines, or stars to represent the throw of a punch. Even the characters' anatomy is highly stylised: cartoon hands, eyes and noses can look almost identical from strip to strip, even when these are by different artists. "If you look at the bits and pieces, they're all systematic," Cohn says.
At the next level comes the cartoon pane, which combines elements of the vocabulary to build new meanings. It's difficult to find an exact analogy to the English language here; according to Cohn, the cartoon strip pane helps to divide our attention into units, like a word, but it is perhaps closer to the words in agglutinative languages such as Turkish or Inuit, in which stems and suffixes are strung together in a single term to give a more complex meaning. (In one Inuit language, for instance, a single word, angyaghllangyugtuqlu, encapsulates the sentence "also, he wants a bigger boat"). Similarly, a single panel of Peanuts can represent "Charlie Brown gets ready to swing his baseball bat" through its signs.
Governing the hierarchy is a set of rules that Cohn dubs "narrative grammar". Just as spoken or written grammars contain different types of word – nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on – the narrative grammar includes different types of panel. Among these are: establisher panels, which set up a scene; initial panels, which create a tension; peaks, which show the climax; and release panels, which undo the tension. Each has its own characteristics, and, like the words in a sentence, they have to follow a certain order. Crucially, Cohn argues that these panes can also be grouped into separate clauses that are embedded in larger structures – so a whole string of panels might represent an "establisher" clause in another sequence. That leads to recursion – the property that allows us to say: "He thought that he said that she said…" – which is thought to be one of the defining characteristics of language.
Despite having no background in linguistics or psychology apart from his undergraduate course, Cohn realised that he needed to add flesh to the bones of his theory with experimental evidence. "The only way to make the comparison between visual language and spoken language is to see what the brain is doing," he says.
That would be easier said than done. Cohn had to wait five years for a place on a postgraduate course at Tufts University, Massachusetts, under the linguist Ray Jackendoff, who is known for groundbreaking work comparing music to language. With additional supervision from the psychologists Phillip Holcomb and Gina Kuperberg, he set about testing his ideas.
To do so, he turned to some classic psycholinguistic experiments from the 1970s and 80s that had attempted to pick apart the way the brain processes grammar. Measuring how quickly subjects are to pick out certain words in a sentence, researchers found that grammatical sentences are quicker to process, even if they are nonsensical, such as "green ideas sleep furiously", than something ungrammatical such as "Picnic strike ideas quiet launched".
If comic books are built from a visual language with its own grammar, Cohn suspected that the same must happen when we look at the pictures of Peanuts – so he set about picking apart Charlie Brown's antics. In some cases he would take pictures from different strips but arrange them so the establishers, initials and peaks all followed the right order. In others, the pictures of the panes were scrambled completely. Recording his volunteers' reaction times as they answered questions on the strips, he found that the grammatical sentences did seem to be processed more quickly – just as you would expect if the brain were using underlying grammatical rules to try to make sense of the confusion.
Further experiments played more subtly with Snoopy's grammar. For instance, in one study Cohn placed blank panels in the middle of a "clause", interrupting the flowing sequence. "I compare it to moving a comma to the wrong place in a sentence," he says. Measuring his subjects' brain activity using electrodes placed on the scalp, he found the same pulse of activity after 600 microseconds – known as a P600 signal – that seems to come as the brain tries to grapple with violations of written or spoken grammar.
Clearly, there is still a long way to go before comics enter neuroscience textbooks, but Cohn's work is already attracting serious interest from comic artists and cognitive scientists alike. He regularly gives talks at Comic-Con events, and this year he won a $10,000 award from the Cognitive Science Society in the US, based on the strength and originality of his doctoral thesis.
Cohn is passionate about the way his theory could influence art education. He points out that children naturally absorb language through imitation and mimicry. But that's not how we are taught art, where individuality is championed. "Our culture is suppressing the biological desires for imitation." The result is that we never learn a fluent visual vocabulary, except a few simple symbols, such as stick men.
A better approach, he says, would be to tap into children's innate language instinct by actively encouraging them to mimic others' drawing. He speaks from experience: from the age of eight, he obsessively copied figures from Disney until he was fluent in every aspect of Mickey Mouse's world. "I was obsessed," he says. "By third grade I was teaching my class to draw them."
For further evidence you need only look to Japan, where comics are more central to mainstream culture. According to studies by Brent Wilson at Penn State University, nearly all six-year-olds surveyed were already able to draw complex narratives to a high level, whereas even by the time they had reached 12, less than half the children he surveyed in western countries were able to do the same. Clearly, that's a different skill to producing the Mona Lisa – but it's still an enticing idea that comics might kickstart artistic development.
For the future, Cohn hopes to investigate the different visual languages that have developed across the world, by building large dictionaries of the elements and their grammars. He has already found that manga comics tend to focus less on a wider scene and more on the individual characters than American comics. Cohn is also interested in studying indigenous Australian sand drawings in more detail. His early analyses suggest that this language, which evolved over perhaps thousands of years, does seem to follow some of the same rules and grammars as western comics. Ultimately, such studies may help to find universals that govern all visual languages. Cohn also wants to apply a historical linguistics approach to comic books – examining how symbols such as motion lines first arose, for instance.
Whatever happens, it's clear that no matter how long he studies them, the fascination he first felt as a child when poring over his dad's old comics will never be quenched. "Each study raises so many new questions about the brain," he says.