Dr Hannah Critchlow is a neuroscientist based at Cambridge University. She is a world-renowned science communicator, speaking regularly at events around the world, and writing such books as The Science of Fate. She is a guest of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020 and kindly spent some time chatting to Glam Adelaide prior to her appearance next month.
It seems Critchlow’s destiny as a scientist was clear from an early age.
“I always loved science as a kid, coz it’s just fun, isn’t it? Chemistry sets, making explosions, figuring out how the world works. And if you’re really curious as a kid, it just allows you to keep on asking more and more questions. After A Levels I went to work as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital, I just got absolutely fascinated with how our brains work: how we make decisions and how our behavior is formed. So I decided to do a biology degree and then a PhD in neuro-psychiatry.”
Her PhD, The Role of Dendritic Spine Plasticity in Schizophrenia,was sponsored by both the UK’s Medical Research Council, and major pharma, GlaxoSmithKline, which meant she had access to some outstanding resources.
“They had spent millions of pounds in setting up this facility to develop new ways of treating mental ill health. I was really interested in brain connectivity, particularly in keys areas of the brain that are involved in how we form our subjective view of the world. I was looking at how these brain cells are altered in conditions where you get altered perception-hallucinations and delusions – so basically models of schizophrenia and psychosis.”
This amazing research has implications far beyond the important area of treatment. It is informing our understanding of, and approach to, such issues as criminology.
“Increasingly, there have been cases where neuroscience evidence has been used in courts and have affected judgements. For example, if you have a variation in the MAOA gene, and you have a severe, traumatic upbringing, then you are much more likely to exhibit socially unacceptable behavior. There have been cases where people’s criminal sentences have been reduced [in these circumstances]. Instead [the courts have] focused on rehabilitation.”
Critchlow explains one extraordinary case which illustrates these implications.
“This guy went through life pretty normally: a general, standard person in society. He had a stepdaughter, who he was quite close to. Suddenly he started getting headaches and developing sexual urges towards her. He was arrested as a result of his behaviors, and the police found lots of [child exploitation material] on his computer. Just before his court case, he had such a blinding headache that he was admitted to hospital, and they found an enormous tumor growing in an area of the brain that’s involved in inhibiting inappropriate behavior. They removed the tumor, and all his inappropriate behaviors stopped. Then after a few years he started getting these urges again. He told his doctor and they found that this tumor was re-growing.”
- You can read more about this case on the New Scientist website.
As well as a highly respected scientist, Critchlow is known as one of the world’s best science communicators: learned, articulate, passionate and engaging. And it is in this role that she is speaking at Writers’ Week, discussing her book The Science of Fate.
“It’s about being able to look at neuroscience from three perspectives: the clinical, the social and the biological, and to think about the ethical considerations for all these results.”
Of course, there is always the concern that this work is the thin end of a eugenics wedge. Critchlow doesn’t shy away from discussing these frightening implications.
“Increasingly commercial companies are leaping on these findings and offering such things as pre-implantation screening of embryos. I don’t think the science is quite there yet for these companies to be offering this. There are a lot of ethical considerations here, so I think it’s timely that science communicators get out there and talk about this research. I think it’s also important that scientists chat to policymakers as well.”
And on a more benign topic, there are also huge inroads being made into what might be called ‘the neuroscience of love’.
“There are some benefits to being in a couple, and this could even be someone you’re really close friends with: you start unconsciously relying on them to remember bits of information so your brain can prioritize on other bits. So it’s less cognitively demanding to go around life once you’re paired up. This also might help explain the feelings of grief and loss you feel when someone’s died, or even when the relationship has ended: part of that is your brain having to adjust to the fact that you’re solely responsible for analyzing the world, whereas before you had this partner in crime helping you to get along.”
Many people have heard of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ and some counsellors have been offering intra-nasal oxytocin spray to facilitate bonding between couples.
“What people don’t often know about oxytocin is that it helps to create a bond between two individuals, but at the expense of outsiders. So you regard people outside your group with much more suspicion. The thinking now is, instead of shoving oxytocin up the noses of couples in counselling, give them a bit of MDMA! That promotes empathy and compassion and breaks down barriers.”
Empathy, compassion and the breaking down of barriers are very much Critchlow’s own stock-in-trade as a science communicator. We could have happily kept listening to her for several hours.
Luckily, we, and the Adelaide public, have the chance to do just that when she comes here for Writers’ Week as par to of the Adelaide Festival. Dr Hannah Critchlow will be speaking for an hour on Saturday 29 February 2020 at 3.45pm in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, Adelaide.
The Science of Fate: The New Science of Who We Are – And How to Shape our Best Future, by Dr Hannah Critchlow will be available through Hatchett Australia from 28 April 2020. RRP: $22.99 in paperback.