Different Strokes

Gaius Petronius.

Posted to Etcetera on Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 07:59:23 AM EST (promoted from Diaries by port1080). RSS.

Can a brain injury turn you queer? Chris Birch, a 27 year-old Welshman, says it did.

Last year, in a freak accident, Birch broke his neck and suffered a stroke as a consequence. He seems to have made an excellent recovery with few physical problems. However, he claims that he has changed from a rough and tumble, girl-chasing rugby player  into a homosexual. In a recent interview he reveals that over a period of months he lost interest in girls and sports, became for creative and gregarious, and has become a hairdresser.

Changes in personality after strokes and other brain injuries are not unknown. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Phineas Gage, a 19th centuty railroad worker who had an iron rod blown into his skull in an explosian and underwent a well documented change in his relationships.  In 2006 there were reports of a woman from Yorkshore who recovered from a stroke but was left with a Jamaican accent!

Not everybody is buying it. A gay commentator in The Guardian suggests he was probably gay already but wouldn't admit it, and the most the stroke would do is lower his inhibitions and let him come out of the closet.  One might also offer that many people reassess their lives after some life-threatening incident, without any brain trauma involved.

Of course, this brings us down to the old nature vs nurture question of sexuality There are those who claim that homosexuality is a psychological choice that can be cured with therapy, while the concensus is that it is inborn. If there is some neurological basis for homosexuality, then the possibility of switching over after some physical trauma becomes at least feasible, as is developing some medical intervention to switch you back to hetero. The gay side of the issue seems to have doubled down and claims that sexuality is innate from the first instant of conception, so there is no possibility of reconverting.

Meantime I'm still wondering about the Jamaican accent.

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Re: Different Strokes


Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 02:25:49 PM EST


I agree with the gay commentator from the Guardian, he was probably already gay and this basically accelerated his coming-out-process. Plus the dude played Rugby! Isn't just that a sport of dudes grabbing each other's junk?


Re: Different Strokes

Ephraim Gadsby.

Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 02:27:15 PM EST

5.00 (interesting)

Becoming homosexual after a stroke damaging a particular part of the brain fits with Greg Cochran's theory homosexuality is caused by a pathogen:

Now that we know that human male homosexuality looks like a disease caused by some infectious organism, the next question is how that could happen - how could some virus change sexual interest?

I don't think that anyone can be sure of the exact mechanism at this point. I think we can be fairly confident that it is caused by an infectious organism, from the information we have and general evolutionary considerations, but infectious organisms can cause harm in many different ways. Malaria colonizes and uses up red blood cells, diphtheria and cholera manufacture toxins, HIV slowly knocks out a key subpopulation of the immune system, leaving you defenseless against many other pathogens, while certain papillomavirus strains deregulates cell division and thus cause cervical cancer. And those are just samples: there are many pathogenic mechanisms involved in infectious disease, some not well understood.

What do we know? We have a lot of indications that there has been some change in the brain. After all, that's the most logical location for the cause of a change in behavior. Simon LeVay and others see differences in hypothalamic nuclei (similar to those seen in sheep). There are associated changes - the lisp, increased neuroticism and depression, etc. Somehow the cause is affecting the brain.

Just as important are all the things we don't see. We don't see IQ depression, we don't see epilepsy, we don't see convulsions, and we don't see aphasia. Clearly there is no gross trauma - somehow, the brain has been damaged, but in a very limited and focused way. A key function has been messed up, which gravely impacts reproductive fitness, but homosexual men can still hold down jobs, including very complex jobs. The overwhelming majority of mental functions are perfectly intact, or at most subtly changed. The damaged neural subsystem could be male-specific.

Do we know of diseases in which there are very specific targets - in which certain cell types are damaged or destroyed while neighboring cells are left intact? Sure. In some cases, a pathogen targets a particular cell type and has little effect on anything else. Human parvovirus (also known as fifth disease) hits erythroid precursor cells (the cells that manufacture red cells) and temporarily inhibits red cell production. In type-I diabetes, it seems likely that Coxsackie virus infections ( in people with a genetic predisposition, in which HLA type plays a major role) trigger an autoimmune disease that gradually (over a year or so) destroys the islet cells which produce insulin. Other cells are not much affected.


^ 2

With a name like that...


Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 07:47:37 PM EST

5.00 (astute)

It supports the idea that homosexuality is associated with structural changes in the brain (as observations do seem to indicate), but a person's brain can be altered by a variety of means. How is it that you imagine this story supports the pathogen hypothesis over any other mechanism for structural change that one might propose?

Also, your choice of blockquote is odd in that it does nothing to support your argument. Pathogens can do lots of things, you say? Well, golly, imagine that. I guess we'd better conclude that they're responsible for teh ghey too. Cochran's math seems compelling. This flailing around for possible mechanisms, not so much.

...but since no one was listening, we must begin again.


^ 3

Re: With a name like that...

Ephraim Gadsby.

Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 01:02:38 PM EST


It's consistent with damage to one particular area of the brain.


^ 2

Re: Different Strokes

Gaius Petronius.

Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 11:12:13 AM EST

5.00 (interesting)

Well,  Cochran is a physicist/anthropologist doing back-of-the-envelope genetics, which doesn't impress me much. We saw a lot of this sort of thing during the early days of the AIDS crisis, like the Duesberg Hypothesis. It wasn't a technical argument so much as a just-so story operating on about the complexity level of a newspaper article. The problem here is that it is too simplistic, as is the stroke cause we're discussing. Ther probably isn't a gay brain cell that can be activated or not by some event; rather ingrained human behavior more likely resides in multiple physical locations that all have to be modified to get a result. The odds of one pathogen or one focal brain trauma hitting the right buttons is remote. The more likely result of a stroke is paralysis or some other deficit, not a complex set of behaviors. A stroke is a battleax, not a laser beam.


^ 4

Re: Different Strokes

Ephraim Gadsby.

Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 01:15:50 PM EST


"Cochran is a physicist/anthropologist doing back-of-the-envelope genetics, which doesn't impress me much."

That's a completely brainless criticism.

"The odds focal brain trauma hitting the right buttons is remote"

No kidding.


The Rest of the Story?

Gaius Petronius.

Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 12:43:14 PM EST

5.00 (interesting)

If you have an idle hour, you may want to see this BBC documentary about Chris. It answers a few questions, and poses some more. For one thing I was incorrect in the write-up about the sequence of events; Chris' accident took place 7 years ago, not one. Although his physical deficits are pretty minor, he apparently has some major memory lapses from the time before the stroke, which makes many of his assertions about what he felt back then suspect. He certainly seems more interested in the gay issue than the memory losses, and he makes no mention of the grave nature of breaking your neck and having to undergo months of hospitalization and physical rehab.

Also interesting is the fact that he has largely drifted away from his mother, who helped him considerably during his recovery. His attitude about people he knew before has changed, even if he remembers them. I would think someone with such memory lapses would be going through life like a ghost, and then it becomes apparent that he is going through life like at least half a ghost, functional but still tentative. I wish BBC could have interviewed the mother. I don't think the doc answers the question of if a stroke can turn you gay, but it does give some insight into a person trying to rebuild their life after so dramatic an injury.

One scene in particular strikes me as odd. He takes a questionnaire at a ridiculously modernistic college lab to try and determine if he were actually gay before the accident. Nobody comments on the fact that a test that asks, for example, whether in childhood you preferred girlish or boyish toys won't work with a person suffering major memory lapses.


^ 5

Re: The Rest of the Story?


Fri Apr 20, 2012 at 11:12:22 AM EST


It sounds like he is just riding his situation to maximum media attention whatever it takes.



^ 8

Re: The Rest of the Story?

Gaius Petronius.

Fri Apr 20, 2012 at 01:42:13 PM EST

5.00 (brilliant)

Well, yes, there is that. However, if he really wanted attention he could have sold his exclusive rights to the Murdoch papers or some such. Birch does seem very invested in his narrative, even if there are plausible alternate explanations for what happened. Even under Occam's Razor the idea that he was gay but unsure before his accident is more acceptable. But then, recovering stroke victims getting odd obsessions is also fairly common. Pheneas Gage would never let the iron bar that pierced his skull out of his sight, or there is the man shown in the BBC video who became obsessed with painting after his stroke. One of the problems with the whole story is that there are so many explanations for current behavior we can't untangle them.

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