Roth and the Grandmother Cell

A story in Discover magazine points out an interesting wrinkle in the world of neurophysiology that involves Philip Roth‘s Portnoy’s Complaint. For decades, researchers have been investigating whether there are such things as “grandmother cells”—cells that respond only to particular people. The first person to propose the idea that such cells might exist was Jerry Lettvin, an MIT neuroscientist who explained the concept by inventing a fable in which Alexander Portnoy is done the extreme kindness of having all the cells in his body that allow him to recognize his mother removed. As Lettvin tells the story [PDF], the neurosurgeon quizzes Portnoy after the deed is done:

“You remember a red dress that walked around the house with slippers under it?”
“O certainly.”
“So who wore it?”
(Blank)

The thrust of the Discover story is that the “grandmother cell” theory, long dismissed, is enjoying a revival. Researchers have noticed certain neurons that respond only to certain particular chosen stimuli, such as images of Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston, which suggests that the researchers may have some of the same fixations as poor old Portnoy.

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Updating yesterday’s post about Song of Solomon being pulled from the curriculum of an AP English class at Shelby High School in western Michigan: WZZM reports that the school board voted 4 to 3 to reinstate the book in the class, though apparently it’s a moot point. According to a Ludington Daily News story, the class won’t be taught next year, due to lack of interest. Which makes this tale all the weirder: If the class isn’t going to happen next year, and the school year is almost over—graduation day is May 29th. Go Tigers!—why did the superintendent so forcefully lay down the law just two days ago? Regardless, nobody who has a problem with Toni Morrison‘s novel has volunteered his or her opinion to a reporter, nor appeared by name in any of the news stories about the kerfuffle. The WZZM story notes only that at the school board meeting, “parents said the book’s content is unacceptable and compared it to pornography.”

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