kottke.org posts about neuroscience

Memories without all the pesky feelingsJun 19 2014

In the New Yorker, Michael Specter writes generally about the malleability of memory and specifically about Daniela Schiller's research on disassociating people's memories from the feelings they have about them. Simply recalling a memory can change it, and Schiller has found evidence that process can be used to remove the feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear associated with certain memories.

Even so, Schiller entered her field at a fortunate moment. After decades of struggle, scientists had begun to tease out the complex molecular interactions that permit us to form, store, and recall many different types of memories. In 2004, the year Schiller received her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, from Tel Aviv University, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and joined the laboratory of Elizabeth Phelps, at New York University. Phelps and her colleague Joseph LeDoux are among the nation's leading investigators of the neural systems involved in learning, emotion, and memory. By coincidence, that was also the year that the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was released; it explores what happens when two people choose to have all their memories of each other erased. In real life, it's not possible to pluck a single recollection from our brains without destroying others, and Schiller has no desire to do that. She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories.

"I want to disentangle painful emotion from the memory it is associated with," she said. "Then somebody could recall a terrible trauma, like those my father obviously endured, without the terror that makes it so disabling. You would still have the memory, but not the overwhelming fear attached to it. That would be far more exciting than anything that happens in a movie." Before coming to New York, Schiller had heard -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that the idea for "Eternal Sunshine" originated in LeDoux's lab. It seemed like science fiction and, for the most part, it was. As many neuroscientists were aware, though, the plot also contained more than a hint of truth.

Are viral cat videos actually viral?Jul 11 2013

Or rather, protozoan? Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite which is transmitted from rodents to cats through a crafty mechanism...it makes mice attracted to the smell of cat urine. Mouse goes near cat, cat eats mouse, T. gondii has a new host. From cats, the parasite can jump into humans, where it may be responsible for all sorts of nastiness:

Well, the behavioral influence plays out in a number of strange ways. Toxoplasma infection in humans has been associated with everything from slowed reaction times to a fondness toward cat urine -- to more extreme behaviors such as depression and even schizophrenia. And here's the kicker: Two different research groups have independently shown that Toxo-infected individuals are three to four times as likely of being killed in car accidents due to reckless driving.

And maybe makes us want to invent networking technology and share cool links? In this five-minute talk, Kevin Slavin cleverly connects viral media with T. gondii:

That video was so good, I watched the whole thing twice.

Bionic men and women walk among usJul 01 2013

For The Verge, Russell Brandom writes about the increasing use of neural implants to control the symptoms of a variety of diseases, from depression to Parkinson's to dystonia.

The results are as reliable as flipping a light switch, but even after decades of testing, no one knows exactly why it works. Dr. Kaplitt, the surgeon who installed Rebecca Serdans' implant, explains it by likening the brain to a collection of electrical circuits. A disorder like dystonia is a failure of those circuits. When you install a brain stimulation device, "it's presumably blocking abnormal information from getting from one part of the brain to another, or normalizing that information." But Kaplitt is the first to acknowledge that this is just a theory. "The mechanism by which brain stimulation works is still somewhat unclear and controversial."

But the lingering questions haven't slowed down research. There are already patents that would use brain stimulation implants to enhance memory or prevent stuttering, to cure anorexia or bring a person to orgasm. Experimental studies use the device to treat Alzheimer's disease and drug addiction. Those circuits aren't as well understood as the circuits governing movement disorders, but the principle is no different. Once you've got a line into the circuitry of the brain, Parkinson's is just the beginning.

Last week I featured a video of a man with Parkinson's who has a brain pacemaker that allows him to function normally.

Is your cat making you crazy?Feb 16 2012

There is increasing evidence that a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which many humans have gotten from cat feces, can rewire our brains and modify human behavior in unexpected ways.

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis-the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats' litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease's end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells-or at least that's the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the "latent" parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that's not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, "Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year."

She blinded me with neuroscienceOct 14 2011

In a 2008 paper called The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations, a group from Yale University demonstrated that including neuroscientific information in explanations of psychological phenomena makes the explanations more appealing, even if the neuroscientific info is irrelevant.

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people's abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation.

I don't know if I buy this. Perhaps if the authors had explained their results relative to how the human brain functions...

An actual working mind probeSep 23 2011

This is incredible...researchers at Berkeley have developed a system that reads people's minds while they watch a video and then roughly reconstructs what they were watching from thousands of hours of YouTube videos. This short demo shows how it works:

Nishimoto and two other research team members served as subjects for the experiment, because the procedure requires volunteers to remain still inside the MRI scanner for hours at a time.

They watched two separate sets of Hollywood movie trailers, while fMRI was used to measure blood flow through the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. On the computer, the brain was divided into small, three-dimensional cubes known as volumetric pixels, or "voxels."

"We built a model for each voxel that describes how shape and motion information in the movie is mapped into brain activity," Nishimoto said.

The brain activity recorded while subjects viewed the first set of clips was fed into a computer program that learned, second by second, to associate visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity.

Brain activity evoked by the second set of clips was used to test the movie reconstruction algorithm. This was done by feeding 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos into the computer program so that it could predict the brain activity that each film clip would most likely evoke in each subject.

Finally, the 100 clips that the computer program decided were most similar to the clip that the subject had probably seen were merged to produce a blurry yet continuous reconstruction of the original movie.

The kicker: "the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams and memories". First time travelling neutrinos and now this...what a time to be alive. (via ★essl)

Conjoined twins...with a twistNov 05 2010

Tatiana and Krista Hogan are conjoined twins who not only share a bit each other's skulls but also parts of their brains. So are they two people with two brains & personalities or one person with one brain and two (split) personalities?

Adding to the conundrum, of course, are their linked brains, and the mysterious hints of what passes between them. The family regularly sees evidence of it. The way their heads are joined, they have markedly different fields of view. One child will look at a toy or a cup. The other can reach across and grab it, even though her own eyes couldn't possibly see its location. "They share thoughts, too," says Louise. "Nobody will be saying anything," adds Simms, "and Tati will just pipe up and say, 'Stop that!' And she'll smack her sister." While their verbal development is delayed, it continues to get better. Their sentences are two or three words at most so far, and their enunciation is at first difficult to understand. Both the family, and researchers, anxiously await the children's explanation for what they are experiencing.

The world's most famous brainNov 01 2010

Lovely long piece in the November issue of Esquire about the brain of Henry Molaison, who you may have previously heard of as Patient H.M., aka the man who lacked the ability to remember anything for more than a couple of minutes. His brain has now been sliced into thin slices in an effort to construct a map of the human brain accurate to neuron-level.

Corkin first met Henry at Brenda Milner's lab in Montreal in 1962, and over the years, as the mining of his mind has continued, she's witnessed firsthand how Henry continues to give up riches, broadening our understanding of how memory works. But she's also keenly aware of Henry's enduring mysteries, has documented things about him that nobody can quite explain, not yet.

For example, Henry's inability to recall postoperative episodes, an amnesia that was once thought to be complete, has revealed itself over the years to have some puzzling exceptions. Certain things have managed, somehow, to make their way through, to stick and become memories. Henry knows a president was assassinated in Dallas, though Kennedy's motorcade didn't leave Love Field until more than a decade after Henry left my grandfather's operating room. Henry can hear the incomplete name of an icon -- "Bob Dy ..." -- and complete it, even though in 1953 Robert Zimmerman was just a twelve-year-old chafing against the dead-end monotony of small-town Minnesota. Henry can tell you that Archie Bunker's son-in-law is named Meathead.

How is this possible?

The piece is written by the grandson of the doctor who removed a portion of Molaison's brain in an effort to cure his epilepsy.

The neuroscience of CostcoApr 01 2010

Jonah Lehrer on what our brains are up to when we're shopping at Costco.

As I note in How We Decide, this data directly contradicts the rational models of microeconomics. Consumers aren't always driven by careful considerations of price and expected utility. We don't look at the electric grill or box of chocolates and perform an explicit cost-benefit analysis. Instead, we outsource much of this calculation to our emotional brain, and rely on relative amounts of pleasure versus pain to tell us what to purchase.

Vegetative state not so vegetativeFeb 04 2010

Using brain scanning equipment and a cleverly designed interrogation technique, scientists have been able to ask questions of so-called vegetative patients; one of them even answered yes or no questions:

Several times when Subject 23 was asked to imagine playing tennis, Monti said, the region of the brain most closely associated with complex motor planning became highly active, and stayed active for 30 seconds after researchers prompted such imagery by saying "tennis."

Similarly, when researchers asked the patient to imagine walking through the house where he grew up and then said the word "navigate," Subject No. 23 responded with bursts of activity in the region of the brain involved in constructing and navigating a mental map.

The young, French-speaking man was the only subject who was then trained to answer simple yes or no questions -- whether his father's name was Paul (yes) or Alexander (no), whether he had siblings and how many -- using the imagery technique he had already learned.

Checking the patient's responses for accuracy and comparing them to the yes-no brain responses of a group of healthy volunteers, researchers discerned that Subject No. 23 was not only still "in there," but capable of purposeful thought and communication.

What the brain looks likeOct 26 2009

100 years of visualizing the brain, from the discovery of neurons in the 19th century to MRI investigations in the 1990s.

1899 neurons

Dogfighting vs. football in moral calculusOct 12 2009

Using Michael Vick as a pivot, Malcolm Gladwell compares professional football with dogfighting and asks if the former is just as morally unacceptable as the latter. This is former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley:

I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I'd hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn't come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don't remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you'd get into a collision where everything goes off. You're dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field-fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you're seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions-boom, boom, boom-lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.

Perhaps this is what Gladwell will be talking about at the upcoming New Yorker Festival?

Update: From Stephen Fatsis, a list of improvements for the NFL players union to consider to protect the health of the players.

N.F.L. players often get excellent medical treatment, but the primary goal is to return them to the field as quickly as possible. Players are often complicit in playing down the extent of their injuries. Fearful of losing their jobs -- there are no guaranteed contracts in the N.F.L. -- they return to the huddle still hurt.

And from GQ comes a profile of Bennet Omalu, one of the few doctors investigating the fate of these NFL players.

Let's say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let's say the scientific community -- starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country -- comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?

Update: Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the NFL's handling of head trauma in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today.

Goodell faced his harshest criticism from Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who called for Congress to revoke the league's antitrust exemption because of its failure to care adequately for injured former players. "I believe you are an $8 billion organization that has failed in your responsibility to the players," Waters said. "We all know it's a dangerous sport. Players are always going to get injured. The only question is, are you going to pay for it? I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it's the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away."

Update: The NFL will soon require players with head injuries to receive advice from independent neurologists.

I'm pretty sure I had neurons devoted to this guyJul 29 2009

Our brains have Oprah neurons, Aniston neurons, Eiffel Tower neurons, and Saddam neurons that fire when we see pictures or hear the names of these people and places.

Yet "Oprah neuron" might be a misnomer. The same neuron also fired, albeit much more weakly, to Whoopi Goldberg in one patient. Similarly, Luke Skywalker neurons also responded to Yoda, and those famous Jennifer Aniston neurons flashed to her former Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow. Such connections could explain how our brain relates two abstract concepts, Quian Quiroga says.

And then the Skywalker neurons said, "these aren't the memories you're looking for". Ba doomp.

Zoning out may be good for youJul 10 2009

Humans spend a large amount of time not paying attention to what they are supposed to be doing. This might not be such a bad thing.

The fact that both of these important brain networks become active together suggests that mind wandering is not useless mental static. Instead, Schooler proposes, mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking. Our brains process information to reach goals, but some of those goals are immediate while others are distant. Somehow we have evolved a way to switch between handling the here and now and contemplating long-term objectives. It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.

This jibes well with the picture of the absentmindedness typical of some brilliant people.

The Neuroscience of IllusionApr 27 2009

In a bit of a sequel to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer talks to Teller (of Penn and Teller) and learns how the tricks that magicians do can be explained by neuroscience.

Our brains don't see everything -- the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. "Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology," Teller says. "If the audience asks, 'How the hell did he do that?' then the experiment was successful. I've exploited the efficiencies of your mind."

Your brain on drugs: productiveApr 24 2009

Since I don't use Adderall or Provigil, it took me a few days to get through this New Yorker article about neuroenhancing drugs. The main takeaway? Like cosmetic body modification in the 80s, mind modification through prescription chemical means is already commonplace for some and will soon be for many.

Chatterjee worries about cosmetic neurology, but he thinks that it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery has; in fact, with neuroenhancement it's harder to argue that it's frivolous. As he notes in a 2007 paper, "Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards." At school and at work, the usefulness of being "smarter," needing less sleep, and learning more quickly are all "abundantly clear." In the near future, he predicts, some neurologists will refashion themselves as "quality-of-life consultants," whose role will be "to provide information while abrogating final responsibility for these decisions to patients." The demand is certainly there: from an aging population that won't put up with memory loss; from overwrought parents bent on giving their children every possible edge; from anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture, where work never really ends.

The article is full of wonderful vocabulary. Like the "worried well": those people who are healthy but go to the doctor anyway to see if they can be made more healthy somehow. Being concerned about how good you've got it and attempting to do something about it seems to be another one of those uniquely American phenomena caused by an overabundance of free time & disposable income and the desire to overachieve. See also the impoverished wealthy, the dumb educated, and fat fit.

Lost and foundDec 09 2008

Henry Molaison -- more widely known as H.M. -- died last week at 82. Molaison was an amnesiac and the study of his condition revealed much about the workings of the human brain. He lost his long-term memory after a surgery in 1953 and couldn't remember anything after that for more than 20 seconds or so.

Living at his parents' house, and later with a relative through the 1970s, Mr. Molaison helped with the shopping, mowed the lawn, raked leaves and relaxed in front of the television. He could navigate through a day attending to mundane details -- fixing a lunch, making his bed -- by drawing on what he could remember from his first 27 years.

Molly Birnbaum was training to be a chef in Boston when she got hit by a car and lost her sense of smell. Soon after, she moved to New York.

Without the aroma of car exhaust, hot dogs or coffee, the city was a blank slate. Nothing was unbearable and nothing was especially beguiling. Penn Station's public restroom smelled the same as Jacques Torres's chocolate shop on Hudson Street. I knew that New York possessed a further level of meaning, but I had no access to it, and I worked hard to ignore what I could not detect.

Update: Here's another take on anosmia and Birnbaum's article.

In the first year of my recovery, I regularly visited both a neurologist and neuropsychologist who both disputed this claim. They told me that smell and taste, although related, are essentially exclusive. If anything, my neuropsychologist told me, smell is more integrated with memory.

In my experience, I've found this to be true: I have not lost my love of food; in fact, I feel like my appreciation for flavor combinations have been heightened. Milk does not taste like a "viscous liquid" to me and ice cream is certainly more than just "freezing." Similarly, a good wine is more than tasting the acids, a memorable dessert is more than simply sweet, and french fries do not taste like salty nothing-sticks.

The secret curse of expert archersAug 01 2008

Elite archers are sometimes afflicted with something called target panic.

Target panic, as the condition is known, causes crack shots to suddenly lose control of their bows and their composure. Mysteriously, sufferers start releasing the bow the instant they see the target, sabotaging any chance of a gold-medal shot. Others freeze up and cannot release at all. Target panic is akin to the yips in baseball and golf, when accomplished athletes can no longer make a simple throw to first base or stroke an easy putt.

Some researchers have asserted that there are two types of yips, neurological (when groups of neurons become worn from overuse) and psychological.

Itching and perceptionJun 24 2008

I try not to miss any of Atul Gawande's New Yorker articles, but his piece on itching from this week's issue is possibly the most interesting thing I've read in the magazine in a long time. He begins by focusing on a specific patient for whom compulsive itching has become a very serious problem. (Warning, this quote is pretty disturbing...but don't let it deter you from reading the article.)

...the itching was so torturous, and the area so numb, that her scratching began to go through the skin. At a later office visit, her doctor found a silver-dollar-size patch of scalp where skin had been replaced by scab. M. tried bandaging her head, wearing caps to bed. But her fingernails would always find a way to her flesh, especially while she slept.

One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, "this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid." She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.'s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night -- and all the way into her brain.

From there, Gawande pulls out to tell us about itching/scratching (the two are inseparable), then about a recent theory of how our brains perceive the world ("visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals"), and finally about a fascinating therapy initially developed for those who experience phantom limb pain called mirror treatment.

Among them is an experiment that Ramachandran performed with volunteers who had phantom pain in an amputated arm. They put their surviving arm through a hole in the side of a box with a mirror inside, so that, peering through the open top, they would see their arm and its mirror image, as if they had two arms. Ramachandran then asked them to move both their intact arm and, in their mind, their phantom arm-to pretend that they were conducting an orchestra, say. The patients had the sense that they had two arms again. Even though they knew it was an illusion, it provided immediate relief. People who for years had been unable to unclench their phantom fist suddenly felt their hand open; phantom arms in painfully contorted positions could relax. With daily use of the mirror box over weeks, patients sensed their phantom limbs actually shrink into their stumps and, in several instances, completely vanish. Researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recently published the results of a randomized trial of mirror therapy for soldiers with phantom-limb pain, showing dramatic success.

Crazy! Gawande documents and speculates about other applications of this treatment, including using virtual reality representations instead of mirrors and utilizing multiple mirrors for treatment of M.'s itchy scalp. Anyway, read the whole thing...highly recommended.

Mirror neurons and sportsJun 13 2008

Rampant speculation from Jonah Lehrer on why people care so much when they watch overpaid athletes play sports. It is, perhaps, all about mirror neurons:

"The main functional characteristic of mirror neurons is that they become active both when the monkey makes a particular action (for example, when grasping an object or holding it) and when it observes another individual making a similar action." In other words, these peculiar cells mirror, on our inside, the outside world; they enable us to internalize the actions of another. They collapse the distinction between seeing and doing.

This suggests that when I watch Kobe glide to the basket for a dunk, a few deluded cells in my premotor cortex are convinced that I, myself, am touching the rim. And when he hits a three pointer, my mirror neurons light up as I've just made the crucial shot. They are what bind me to the game, breaking down that 4th wall separating fan from player. I'm not upset because my team lost: I'm upset because it literally feels like I lost, as if I had been on the court.

For scientist Dr. Anne Adams (and composerApr 09 2008

For scientist Dr. Anne Adams (and composer Maurice Ravel), a rare disease called frontotemporal dementia caused a burst of creativity.

The disease apparently altered circuits in their brains, changing the connections between the front and back parts and resulting in a torrent of creativity. "We used to think dementias hit the brain diffusely," Dr. Miller said. "Nothing was anatomically specific. That is wrong. We now realize that when specific, dominant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger."

Some of Adams' work can be seen here...her portrait of pi contains a touch of synesthesia. (thx, cory)

This talk by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte TaylorMar 16 2008

This talk by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor was universally considered the best talk at the TED conference last month. In it, she describes the lessons she learned from studying her stroke from inside her own head as it was happening.

And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. And I realized, "Oh my gosh! I'm having a stroke! I'm having a stroke!" And the next thing my brain says to me is, "Wow! This is so cool. This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?"

Proust Was a NeuroscientistFeb 22 2008

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist is the story of how eight writers and artists anticipated our contemporary understanding of the human brain. From the preface:

This book is about artists who anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience. It is about writers and painters and composers who discovered truths about the human mind -- real, tangible truths -- that science is only now rediscovering. Their imaginations foretold the facts of the future.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit so I sent the author, Jonah Lehrer, a few questions via email. Here's our brief conversation.

Jason Kottke: Your exploration of the intersection of neuroscience and culture begins with Proust; you were reading Swann's Way while doing research in a neuroscience lab. Where did the idea come from for a collection of people who anticipated our modern understanding of the human brain? How did you find those other stories?

Jonah Lehrer: The lab I was working in was studying the chemistry of memory. The manual labor of science can get pretty tedious, and so I started reading Proust while waiting for my experiments to finish. After a few hundred pages of melodrama, I began to realize that the novelist had these very modern ideas about how our memory worked. His fiction, in other words, anticipated the very facts I was trying to uncover by studying the isolated neurons of sea slugs. Once I had this idea about looking at art through the prism of science, I began to see connections everywhere. I'd mutter about the visual cortex while looking at a Cezanne painting, or think about the somatosensory areas while reading Whitman on the "body electric". Needless to say, my labmates mocked me mercilessly.

I'm always a little embarrassed to admit just how idiosyncratic my selection process was for the other artists in the book. I simply began with my favorite artists and tried to see what they had to say about the mind. The first thing that surprised me was just how much they had to say. Virginia Woolf, for instance, is always going on and on about her brain. "Nerves" has to be one of her favorite words.

Kottke: Which of your characters did you know the least about beforehand? Even a seeming polymath like yourself must have a blind spot or two.

Lehrer: Definitely Gertrude Stein. I actually found her through William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher. She worked in his Harvard lab, published a few scientific papers on "automatic writing," and then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins before dropping out and moving to Paris to hang out with Picasso. So I knew she had this deep background in science, but I had only read snippets of her work. I then proceeded to fall asleep to the same page of "The Making of Americans" for a month.

Kottke: Are there other characters that you considered for inclusion? If so, why weren't they included?

Lehrer: Lots of people were left on the cutting room floor. I had a long digression on Edgar Allen Poe and mirror neurons. (See, for instance, "The Purloined Letter," where Poe has detective Dupin reveal his secret for reading the minds of criminals: "When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.") I also had a chapter on Coleridge and the unconscious, but I think that chapter was really just me wanting to write about opium. But, for the most part, I can't really say why some chapters survived the editing process and others didn't. I certainly mean no disrespect to Poe. If they let me write a sequel, I'll find a way to include him.

Kottke: I noticed that three out of the eight main characters in the book are women. Surveying the usually cited big thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, it would have been easy to write this book with all male characters. Is there an implicit statement in there that science would be better off with a greater percentage of women participating?

Lehrer: While I certainly agree with the idea that the institution of science would benefit from more female scientists, I didn't choose these female artists for that reason. I don't think you need any ulterior motive to fall in love with the work of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. Their art speaks for itself. That said, I think the psychological insights of women like Woolf were rooted, at least in part, in their womanhood. Woolf, for instance, rebelled against the stodgy old male novelists of her day. Their fiction, she complained, was all about "factories and utopias". Woolf wanted to invert this hierarchy, so that the "task of the novelist" was to "examine an ordinary mind on an ordinary day." There's something very domestic about her modernism, so that the grandest epiphanies happen while someone is out buying flowers or eating a beef stew. Women might not be able to write novels about war or politics, but they could find an equal majesty by exploring the mind.

Plus, I think Woolf learned a lot about the brain from her mental illness. As a woman, she was subjected to all sorts of terrible psychiatric treatments, which made her rather skeptical of doctors. (In Mrs. Dalloway, she refers to the paternalistic Dr. Bradshaw as an "obscurely evil" person, whose insistence that the mental illness was "physical, purely physical" causes a suicide.) Introspection was Woolf's only medicine. "I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it's ripe," she once wrote. "It will be exquisite by September."

Kottke: Are there other books/media out there that share a third culture kinship with yours? I received a copy of Lawrence Weschler's Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences for Christmas...that seems to fit. Steven Johnson's books. Anything else you can recommend?

Lehrer: I've stolen ideas from so many people it's hard to know where to begin. Certainly Weschler and Johnson have both been major influences. I've always worshipped Oliver Sacks; Richard Powers has more neuroscience in his novels than most issues of Nature; I just saw Olafur Eliasson's new show at SFMOMA and that was rather inspiring. I could go on and on. It's really an exciting time to be interested in the intersection of art and science.

But I'd also recommend traveling back in time a little bit, before our two cultures were so divided. We don't think of people like George Eliot as third-culture figures, but she famously described her novels as a "a set of experiments in life." Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the "psychology should be done very realistically." Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Or look at Coleridge. When the poet was asked why he attended so many lectures on chemistry, he gave a great answer: "To improve my stock of metaphors". In other words, trying to merge art and science isn't some newfangled idea.

--

Thanks, Jonah. You can read more of Lehrer's writing at his frequently updated blog, The Frontal Cortex.

A recent study shows that the humanFeb 07 2008

A recent study shows that the human brain reacts differently to people that seem like us than to those who don't.

The experimenters used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of Harvard and other Boston-area students while showing them pictures of other college-age people whom the researchers randomly described as either liberal northeastern students or conservative Midwest fundamentalist Christian students.

The study concludes that the secret to getting along with someone that you perceive as an outsider is to find some common ground so that your brain will accept them as someone with similar circumstances.

This is not new advice. Yet it is heartening to see that it is firmly grounded in distinct patterns of neural activity. There may be a brain basis for reacting with prejudices for those that seem different. But there's also a brain basis for overriding those differences and seeing outsiders as more like us.

David Galbraith expands upon what this means for society at large:

In other words, a civilized society depends not on the people who are currently the most civilized, but those who are most willing to accept change, as social or cultural groupings change, split or coalesce. Inevitably this means reasonable people rather than faithful people.

Forgetting May Be Part of the ProcessJun 06 2007

Forgetting May Be Part of the Process of Remembering. "A lightning memory, in short, is not so much a matter of capacity as it is of ruthless pruning." I pointed to some similar studies in my better living through self-deception post from a couple of weeks ago.

Better living through self deceptionMay 24 2007

Interesting article about how people tell their stories and think of their past experiences and how that influences their mood and general outlook on life.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person's unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being -- who had recovered, by standard measures -- told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

"The story is one of victorious battle: 'I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,'" Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The article goes on to describe the benefits of thinking about past events in the third person rather than in the first person:

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students' essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

"What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you're feeling upset," instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study's lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

But things like eating disorders and mental illness aren't external forces and thinking about a bad memory as if it happened to a third party is not the truth. The standard model of the happy, smart, successful human being is someone who knows more, works hard, and has found, or at least is heading toward, their own personal meaning of life. But often that's not the case. Self-deceit (or otherwise willfully forgetting seemingly pertinent information) seems to be important to human growth.

Consider the recent findings by a group at Harvard about the effects of mindset on physical fitness:

The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects' mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.

Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women's health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.

Just by thinking they were exercising, these women gained extra benefit from their usual routines. The idea of thinking about oneself reminded me of Allen Iverson's training routine, which utilizes a technique called psychocybernetics:

"Let me tell you about Allen's workouts," says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. "All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we'll be on our way to the game and he'll be quiet as hell. Finally, he'll say, 'You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I'm gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I'm gonna kill 'em with it all night long.' And damned if he didn't do just that. See, that's his workout, when he's just sitting there, thinking. That's him working on his game."

What Iverson is doing is tricking his conscious self into thinking that he's done something that he hasn't, that he's practiced a move or shot 100 perfect free throws in a row. I think, therefore I slam. (I wonder if Iverson pictures himself in the first or third person in his visualizations.)

Carol Dweck's research looks at the difference between thinking of talent or ability as innate as opposed to something that can be developed:

At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite -- the determination to master new things and surmount challenges -- lay in people's beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn't tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.

For some people, the facade they've created for themselves can come crashing down suddenly, as with stage fright:

He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as "stage dread," a sort of "paradigm shift." He says, "It's not 'Look at me - I'm flying.' It's 'Look at me - I might fall.' It would be like playing a game of chess where you're constantly regretting the moves you've already played rather than looking at the ones you're going to play." Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.

In a slightly different but still related vein, Gerd Gigerenzer's research indicates that ignoring information is how smart decisions are made:

In order to make good decisions in an uncertain world, one sometimes has to ignore information. The art is knowing what one doesn't have to know.

Research done by Edward Vogel at the University of Oregon shows the capacity of a person's visual working memory "depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information":

"Until now, it's been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it's about the bouncer - a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness," Vogel said.

And data from another study indicates that perhaps one of the things that the brain does best is forgetting ("motivated (voluntary) forgetting", in the words of one researcher):

The findings suggest that despite the brain's astonishing ability to archive a lifetime of memories, one of its prime functions is, paradoxically, to forget. Our sensory organs continually deluge us with information, some of it unpleasant. We wouldn't get through the day -- or through life -- if we didn't repress much of it.

Perhaps the way to true personal acheivement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information. There are plenty of self-help books on the market...where are the self-hurt books?

The sex of my brain is neitherJan 02 2007

The sex of my brain is neither male nor female...I'm right in the middle.

A contestant on Who Wants to BeNov 10 2006

A contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? uses his knowledge of cognitive neuroscience to advance to the late stages of the game.

Scott Adams hacks brain, restores speechOct 25 2006

I know it's only 8am, but this is the best link of the day. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, lost his voice 18 months ago due to a strange condition called spasmodic dysphonia. He wasn't ever supposed to get it back, but he did what any good nerd would do: he figured out how to hack his brain to route around the problem and, voila, his voice returned. Awesome. (thx, eric)

Update: In November 2004, Adams also lost the ability to draw because of a condition called focal dystonia. As with his voice problems, he routed around the problem by learning to draw in a different way. (thx, martin)

Update: Wired has an update on Adams' condition. Apparently a few days after he wrote the blog post above, Adams had a relapse and waited almost two more years for a surgical procedure that helped him.

Gamers show a "similar pattern of highFeb 13 2006

Gamers show a "similar pattern of high performance in resisting irrelevant impulses" as bilingual people. "Maybe those kids who play video games and who are also bilingual will be the best of older adults at filtering out distractions." (via sjb)

The human brain may have undergone "substantialSep 13 2005

The human brain may have undergone "substantial evolution" in the past 60,000 years.

Poetry takes more brain power to read than proseApr 07 2005

Poetry takes more brain power to read than prose. "Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose."

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