As neuroscience enthusiasts already know, there are countless podcasts out there about brain-related topics. To inform my Cerebrum podcasts, I’ve sampled many of them to pick up tips on how to explain research that can often be complex and difficult to understand.
One such podcast that does a masterful job of explaining both chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and false memory is Revisionist History, a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, a former New Yorker staff writer and the author of Tipping Point, Blink, and other New York Times best seller nonfiction works. The podcast labels itself as a “journey through the overlooked and misunderstood.”
The CTE episode, entitled “Burden of Proof,” focuses on Owen Thomas, a captain of the University of Pennsylvania football team who committed suicide several years ago. Gladwell builds the episode from a talk on the topic of “proof” that he gave to students at Penn in 2013. He used CTE, a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries, to make his point.
To help explain some of the controversy surrounding CTE, he goes back to 1918, when the senior statistician for the Prudential Insurance Company visited coal-miner country to investigate underwriting future policies. Why were so many coal miners dying prematurely of asthma-related conditions? While the statistician’s report concluded that deaths were highly likely to be related to coal dust in the lungs, naysayers claimed it was “suggested evidence,” not “definitive evidence”—a very similar scenario to how many today define the CTE issue, since researchers have only been able to draw conclusions based on examining the brains of deceased people.
Gladwell’s podcast asks a fundamental question: “At what point do you act?” He adds: “It wasn’t until the 1970s that people realized that tens of thousands of miners were dying horrible deaths, vastly prematurely, because of the dust they inhaled in the mines. I think we can agree that this is an appalling story. We should have acted in 1918, instead we waited till 1975.”
Gladwell references Chris Nowinski, who asked Owens’ family for their son’s brain for study. Nowinski was the author of “Hit Parade: The Future of the Sports Concussion Crisis,” our Cerebrum article on CTE in 2013. He is a founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and works closely with Dana Alliance member Ann McKee and other researchers at Boston University (BU) on CTE. Their group has examined the brains of 111 former NFL players who have died; 110 were found to have CTE.
“Are cases like this absolute proof of a connection between CTE and football players getting hit in the head? No,” admits Gladwell. He says the research group, which also published a study that looks at kids who started playing tackle football before the age of 12, found that “youth exposure to tackle football may reduce resiliency to late life neuropathology.”
The listener is asked to draw his or her own conclusions, and the podcast does a masterful job of laying out the argument.
– Bill Glovin