I just finished reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. It is a very interesting book, explaining the basics of neurology through scientific detail of what we know of how the brain works, and detailing stories of people throughout history whose brains changed through terrible accidents or stupidity (in my opinion, the only word you can use to describe surgeons who removed people’s hypothalami just to see what happened).
I highly recommend it, with the usual caveat for this type of book, that you should only read it if you don’t mind stretches of technical language and ‘dry’ reading.
Anyways, as fascinating as it was to read, there were parts where I had to put it down because I felt like crying, or laughing in that nervous, disconcerting laugh you usually hear in movies to show someone is going off the deep end. I find it difficult to think about brain damage or diseases that affect the brain; one of my biggest fears is being unable to trust my mind.
I can easily handle reading about people’s viscera being cut out by a serial killer, but talk to me about people being unable to rely on how they see the world, or the reasoning power of their brain fading and I’ll get pale and might ask you to stop.
Which makes it more than a bit ironic that I’m willingly changing the way my brain and my senses work.
I have asthma. It faded when I moved to Florida, when I was about 9 years old, but it’s been very slowly getting worse since I moved back to beautiful, polluted Bogotá six-and-a-half years ago. It’s not a big deal, I haven’t had an attack since I was very young, and so long as I keep my inhaler about me for when my breathing starts getting strained, it doesn’t affect me.
Except… I lost my sense of smell a long time ago, due to an ever-stuffy nose. I’d walk into a room and someone would go “Jesus, what’s that smell?” and I’d have to pretend I could smell it, when I really had no idea there was anything off at all. About 5 months ago though, that all changed. When I went outside, I could take a deep breath through my nose, and suddenly smell, really smell, the fresh air and grass and everything.
It was overwhelming.
I could now smell someone’s perfume from 3 metres away, and could go to our beautiful botanical garden and finally appreciate the wonderful smell of each rose and tree I walked by. The way I enjoyed food changed, too. I don’t know if it’s simply down to my sense of smell affecting my enjoyment of food, but for whatever reason cherries, my favourite treat until then, suddenly became overpowering and strong, and I stopped eating them. Beer became 5 times more delicious, almost from night to day. I could really distinguish between different types of meat, and rice. Not that I couldn’t before, but the difference was more marked now.
As bizarre and unexpected as those changes were, though, I didn’t worry, as I soon figured out why they were happening: hormones.
When I went to the endocrinologist and finally got a prescription for Testosterone blockers and oestrogen, I was expecting exactly three major changes to myself:
- Slight changes to my facial structure
- Emotional instability
Of course, there were quite a few more, but they were small things… my personal scent might get a bit more ‘flowery’, I might get tired quicker, lose muscle mass, my body hair might get lighter, etc. There are a ton of changes, some obvious, some less so. They’re all minor though, very gradual and difficult to notice.
Since then, I’ve researched more about it, and discovered a few MtF transgender people report a more sensitive nose since starting HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and, interestingly, that many women in their period as well as pregnant women report a stronger sense of smell. It seems a fair hypothesis then, that oestrogen, or a related hormone, is linked to the ability to pick up smells. I haven’t been able to find much scientific literature on the subject, but I find it very interesting.
What evolutionary reasons could there be for it? Is it something to do with mating? Survival? Is it just “one of those things”, a trait passed down because it’s attached to a gene for a more useful trait? I have no idea, though I’d love to hear any ideas or links to studies about it.
Finding out I’d been affecting my sense of smell and possibly my palate made me wonder about my other senses. Has my sight been slowly growing different in the last few months? Has the way I see colours been modified so slowly I haven’t noticed? I don’t know.
It’s also led to much consideration of what I’m doing to my brain. There’s a study, Zhou et al. (1995), which looked at the brains of transgender people. Among other things, it found that transgender people who’d been on HRT for an expended period of time had male-sized brains if they were FtM (female-to-male), and female-sized brains if they were MtF (male-to-female).
A fascinating note is that controls, cisgender (non-trans) people who’d also gone through HRT for medical reasons still kept a brain size within the average range of people of their assigned and identified gender. That is, if they were men taking female hormones for, say, a heart condition, they still had male-size brains, while women taking male hormones kept female-sized brains.
If you’re wondering what differences there are between male and female -sized brains, the fact is that men’s brains are larger than women’s on average. Note that this has little or nothing to do with intelligence. It’s likely just due to the fact women are on average, smaller than men, and so tend to have smaller craniums.
I’ve been meaning to talk about this study for ages. I find it bizarre. There are other studies that show obvious changes due to hormones, and some that show transgender people have brains with certain characteristics that resemble those of the gender they identify as more than their assigned gender, even before hormone treatment. However, the fact hormones can affect transgender people in a different way than cisgender people is just odd.
I mention the study partly because I enjoy talking about it, but also because it makes me wonder what else I’m doing to my brain. Hormones have modified my endocrine system, leading to female secondary sex characteristics and changes to my emotions, but they are clearly changing my brain. Studies of transgender people are sadly not as extensive as I wish they were, so I don’t have much to go on. I wouldn’t be surprised if a thorough study were to find more changes after HRT than simply in size.
Regardless of what they are, I’m oddly calm about them. I suppose there is a difference between your brain changing due to disease or age, and between being a consequence of medical treatment I opted for.
I don’t know in which ways my senses are changing, or how I’m modifying my brain chemistry and the complicated works every time I take my pills. I’m becoming a different person, and it’s not simply due to my happiness at being myself and freedom to explore my identity. On a physical level, I’m modifying my body and my brain, changing my mind and the way I think.
I still feel calm about it. How about that?
I hope this post was interesting. I wrote it in a tone different from my usual, partly due to the subject matter, partly to having just finished a book written in a similar way. How did you like it? Should I keep posts like these infrequent, or start employing this tone more? What are your thoughts on the things I talk about here? Finally, if you’ve read The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons or enjoy talking about neurology, please mention that in comments, because I’d really love to talk about some of the stuff in the post with someone else.
Happy Tuesday, and hope you’re all having a lovely week! 🙂