Stroke “causes” change in sexuality?

Posted on December 23, 2011


Huffington Post

Dateline: 9 November 2011 // Posted by: Ciaran Murray

Source: Daily Mail, The Sun, Huffington Post

Story: “Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident…wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser”

Summary: When a 19-year-old rugby player had a stroke after a freak training accident he awoke from his coma with an extraordinary claim. He claimed that he was gay. According to him, “I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange but when I came round I felt different.”

Before the stroke Chris was seen as a burly macho man, who spent his weekends watching sport or drinking with his mates. The stroke also appeared to change his interests and personality. Before the stroke he was a banker, he weighed 19 stone, was engaged to his fiancé and played rugby. After the stroke he left his banking job to become a hairdresser, taking more pride in his appearance he lost 9 stone, broke up with his fiancé and apparently lost all interest in sports. As he recalled “Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life. I didn’t get on with my friends. I hated sports and found my job boring.”

Chris asked the advice of a neurosurgeon who told him this dramatic change might all be down to the stroke opening up a different part of the brain. Chris has no problem with the way he is now according to him. “I’m nothing like the old Chris now but I wouldn’t change a thing”. Indicating he had no regrets at all at the incident. He is now 26 and engage to his 19-year-old lover.

Why is this PseudoNews? Although there have been incidences where an individual experiences change in behaviour after a stroke, changes in sexual orientation as a result of stroke are extremely rare. Such a rare case should be met with some skepticism. But none of the media sources that ran story cast any doubt on his claim and none of the news sources look to explore any other explanation. Headlines like “Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser” show the reader that these news sources are treating this change in sexual orientation as a result of stroke as a fact.

Another questionable aspect of this story is the way his behaviour changed with his sexuality to fit the mould of a stereotypical homosexual man. The news story seems to suggest that just because he lost his interest in sports and now seems to take more pride in his appearance, this seems to support the claim that he suddenly has turned gay. Stereotypically rugby is played by heterosexual men and stereotypically men take less pride in their appearance than homosexual men. But in reality a homosexual man is just as likely to enjoy rugby as anyone else and heterosexual men can be just as vain as anybody else. Therefore if it was a fact that his behaviour randomly changed with his sexuality to conform to such a stereotyped caricature of a homosexual man, this would seem a very big coincidence.

Near-death experiences have also been known to change behaviour dramatically. As people feel like they have wasted their lives, so they do not want to continue doing so. Chris might have felt he wasted his life by not embracing his homosexuality and the stroke convinced him not to waste his life any more. This might either be a case of cognitive dissonance. Chris cannot accept the fact he wasted his life, so he has to convince himself the stroke turned him gay and that he could not have had a different life. Coming out can be a difficult and traumatic experience for some people because of all the negative connotations associated with homosexuality by some groups and people. Another explanation is Chris might have felt ashamed of being gay. So he found it easier to use the stroke as a scapegoat.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The assertion that this news story makes lacks parsimony. There are two options: (a) a stroke turned him gay or (b) there is another explanation such as he always was gay and lied about the stroke turning him gay. The latter explanation is far more parsimonious. A stroke turning a person gay is extremely rare. On the other hand a person simply telling a lie about their sexuality is much more common.

The news story has a tolerance of anecdotal evidence. The only thing giving this news story any believability is one man’s word. The only other corroboration offered is when a neuroscientist says, “It might all be down to stroke due to regions of the brain opening up.” This lacks any specifics as to why he has turned gay, plus the neuroscientist says the word “might” which shows he is not sure. The story does not abide by Carl Sagan’s motto “Extraordinary claims require extra ordinary evidence”. This entire story is an extraordinary claim on its own with little evidence.

Finally this story lacks any type of falsifiability. There is no way to test if Chris was gay before and no scientific way to test if a change has taken place. Testing for someone’s sexuality is considered unreliable and, consequently, unethical. Even if Chris was telling the truth and he did experience his first homosexual experience after the stroke, there is still no way to prove that it was the stroke that made him gay. Nobody really knows what causes sexual orientation. Experts speculate it seems to be part biological, part cultural and part environmental. There have been numerous cases of people experiencing their first homosexual experience in their twenties, thirties and forties. Therefore it is possible he was gay without realising it. Chris Birch realising he was gay after a stroke might simply be a coincidence.

The moral of the story: The moral is that you can’t always believe anecdotal evidence. Just because behaviour seems to change after an event does not mean the event caused it. This story is a prime example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.