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A Public Coversation about Morality and the Brain

[ 8 ] April 8, 2011

Patricia Churchland

It had been some time since I had sat in a university lecture hall.  But on March 30, a special event brought me to historic Havemeyer at Columbia University.  The topic: morality and the brain.  Patricia Churchland, whose research focuses on the interface between philosophy and neuroscience, offered answers to such unanswerable questions such as Can science tell us right from wrong? and Where do values come from? Dr. Churchland’s compelling and scrupulous theory — which takes into account evolutionary, genetic, neuroendocrinological, and behavioral evidence — appears in her new book, Braintrust (Princeton University Press).  An in-depth review of her argument will appear here at The Beautiful Brain soon.  Suffice it to say that it had also been some time since I had taken so many notes.

The greatly successful night was organized and sponsored by NeuWrite, a group of writers and scientists dedicated to the public dissemination of science, with support from the Dana Foundation.  Dr. Churchland’s presentation was followed by a dialogue with City University of New York philosopher Jesse Prinz, whose theoretical thinking is also tied to scientific study.  Churchland and Prinz might be called neurophilosophers, after Churchland’s 1989 book Neurophilosophy (The MIT Press).  These are the rare responsible intellectuals who will always have me happily stuck to my seat.

Life is a Dream

[ 21 ] March 25, 2011

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Dreams are seemingly all anybody talks about in the Spanish Golden Age drama La vide es sueño (Life is a Dream).  In that classic by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the crown prince of Poland — Segismundo — has been imprisoned by his father since birth because of a prophecy: Segismundo will be a cruel king.  But his father — King Basilio — wants to know whether or not his son is in fact cruel.  So Segismundo — now a man — is drugged, taken to the palace, and given the throne.  After waking up in power, he attempts to rape a woman, fights her father, and engages a duke in a duel.  A poor servant who points out the faults in Segismundo’s behavior is promptly thrown off of a balcony.  Now sure of the prophecy, King Basilio drugs his son again and returns him to captivity, where confused Segismundo wonders about reality:

What is life? A frenzy.

What is life?  An illusion,

a shadow, a fiction,

and the greatest good is mean:
for all life is a dream,

and dreams themselves are only dreams.

This is part of the most famous monologue in the play and whence its title comes. But after attending the March 20 Brainwave event with Debra Winger and Dr. Robert Stickgold, I re-discovered a brilliant speech by Clotaldo, the guard of Segismundo — and thought about it in the context of modern science:

But as they say dreams are rough copies of the waking soul

Yet uncorrected of the higher Will,

So that men sometimes in their dreams confess

An unsuspected, or forgotten, self;

One must beware to check — ay, if  one may,

Stifle ere born, such passion in ourselves

As makes, we see, such havoc with our sleep,

And ill reacts upon the waking day,

And, by the bye, for one test, Segismund,

Between such swearable realities —

Since Dreaming, Madness, Passion, are akin

In missing each that salutary rein

Of reason, and the guiding will of men.

Preeminent sleep researcher Dr. Stickgold — of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital — mentioned a fascinating finding: the prefrontal cortex, thought to be the throne of “executive function” — is particularly sensitive to sleep.  Its deactivation is responsible for the bizarreness of dreams.  Indeed, Clotaldo’s observation — philosophical in nature — is essentially the hypothesis that has been proven by sleep researchers (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2002).  Great minds think alike.

Next, Clotaldo describes the influence that dreams can have on waking life.  In a TedxRiverCity talk, Dr. Stickgold described an experiment by his student Erin Wamsley that showed that sleeping — and more specifically dreaming — improved performance on a task.  Subjects were required to navigate a 3-D maze.  In between trials, half of the subjects took 90-minute naps and half did not.  The nappers were on average one minute faster than non-nappers.  But the coolest finding was that the performance of the nappers who dreamed improved ten times.  It turns out that even off-topic dreams help.  (“A brief nap is beneficial for human route learning,” in press.)  The brain does not rest while the body does; in fact, the whole brain is busy processing information on multiple levels.  As Clotaldo notices, sleeping and waking are not strictly separate.  He does suggest that we should do our best to make them so, however.

Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Finally, Clotaldo draws a parallel between dreaming and two other states: madness and passion.  They are all born from a measure of freedom from the mainly rational self, which makes sure to say safe in order to survive in the world.  During the talk, Ms. Winger — Academy-Award nominated actress, author of the memoir/meditation Undiscovered, and mother of two sons — articulated her experience in the fluid continuum of dreaming and waking, and her frustration with quotidian concerns that keep her from that which is most deep and wonderful.  But all of the worlds — dreaming, and perhaps madness and passion too — are perpetually present.   Dreams do not “turn off,” Ms. Winger noted; the key is to access them while awake.  We might call that creativity.  Indeed, another finding related in the TedxRiverCity video showed that people who slept were two-and-a-half times more likely to perceive an underlying pattern in a memorized list of numbers.  Dr. Stickgold called this a “creative intrusion.”  He has said that he believes the purpose of dreams could be to integrate old and new memories and to imagine possible futures.  Is that not what an artist does?  And so we might add Creativity to Clotaldo’s list — with Madness, Passion, and, of course, Dreaming — of somewhat liberated mind-states.  Not intrusion, of course, but inspiration.  Pedro Calderón de la Barca must have known this.  You can read what his brain produced.

When they find out about their captive prince, the people of Poland liberate Segismundo and he becomes the head of a rebel force.  But he is reluctant to believe what is happening to him is real; he expects to again wake up from this dream of power.   Segismundo frees Clotaldo — who had tried to warm him about himself during the first kingship experiment— and acknowledges the importance of restraint.  Segismundo defeats his father, but mercifully lets him live.  He has a chance to satisfy his lust with the same woman, but does not.  Instead, he selflessly encourages the same dueling duke to marry her.  In the end, Segismundo becomes an enlightened king, devoted to acting well and doing good deeds.  All because of his powerful insight: life is a dream.  How fittingly Buddhist!

Brainwave 2011: Ride the Wave

[ 0 ] March 8, 2011

Brainwave 2011 | Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Shhh!  Listen.  Do you hear that?  That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the most enlightening conversation series in New York City is back.  Brainwave 2011!  At The Rubin Museum of Art.  The theme of this season is . . . DREAMS!

The first event that I had the pleasure of attending was “Who Dreamed the First Dream” (March 6), featuring the Israeli writer Meir Shalev and the American Museum of Natural History anthropologist Serinity Young.  Mr. Shalev—who writes a weekly column for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot—is the author of several fiction (A Pigeon and A Boy, 2006), non-fiction (In the Beginnings: Firsts in the Bible, 2011), and children’s books (My Father Always Embarrasses Me, 1988).  Dr. Young received a PhD in Comparative Religion and has edited and herself authored books, most notably Dreaming in the Lotus (1999), an analysis of the role of dreams in Buddhism, and the forthcoming Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Ritual, and Iconography, which sounds pretty hot.

Dr. Young began by recounting the Buddhist myth of the dream of Queen Maya.  Queen Maya, the mother of the Buddha, dreamed that her womb was touched from the right side by a white elephant.  Wise men then concluded that Queen Maya would give birth to the Buddha.  Mr. Shalev remarked that this is very sexual.  The crowd laughed; he laughed too, but was at the same time quite serious.  “We cannot ignore the trunkiness of the trunk,” he reminded.  Mr. Shalev is also a wise man, and a gifted storyteller.  During his time onstage Mr. Shalev recounted his own childhood dreams and offered anecdotes about his father, which thoroughly delighted the audience.  In anticipation of Mr. Shalev’s talk, I was reading one of his books—The Blue Mountain (2002)—and it was delightful too, but unfortunately I got into a disagreement with it.  One of those “it’s not you it’s me” situations.  We’ll see what happens.  (If anyone is reading/has read the book and would like to council me through my relationship, feel free to get in touch.)

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, someone asked Mr. Shalev “Who is your favorite Bible character?”  Mr. Shalev said Jacob, because of the extreme poles—romantic and practical—that exist within his character.  For example, when Jacob first meets his wife-to-(eventually)-be Rachel, he notices that she is beautiful, and also that her family has a nice flock of sheep.  A good match, then, in two regards.  Mr. Shalev then remembered Paltiel, an even-less-than-minor character who appears for a few lines in the book of 2 Samuel.  We’re talking one-line-minor.  After overcoming the House of Saul, King David insists upon having Saul’s daughter Michal for a wife.  And so she was taken from her husband—Paltiel—who “went with her, weeping as he went, and followed her to Bahurim.  Then said Abner unto him, ‘Go, return’ and he returned'” (2Samuel3:16).  Devotion, loss.  There is a whole novel right there, as Mr. Shalev noted.  The Bible is filled with such unnoticed but necessary characters, which give the work the thorough richness that makes great literature great, as in for example The Iliad, War and Peace, The Inferno, Don Quixote, or Remembrance of Things Past.  Maybe the most telling thing about a person is how he treats his minor characters.  In art and in life.

March 6, 2011.  Brainwave.  I heard Mr. Meir Shalev.  To this point, he appears in maybe one line in the book of my life, if that were to exist.  He is a minor character.  And I am so grateful that I encountered him.  And I am grateful for Brainwave.  For its enrichment.

Science (and the Sexes) in the City

[ 1 ] March 7, 2011

Dr. Donald W. Pfaff

Last Tuesday evening approximately 100 people gathered at the New York Academy of Sciences to hear a talk on the neurobiology behind many of the sex differences found in men and women. The speaker was Dr. Donald W. Pfaff of Rockefeller University, well-known for his work in behavioral neuroscience and his studies on sex hormones.

Before the talk started, however, I was already impressed with the Academy’s presentation. Settling into a room boasting incredible Manhattan skyline views was a diverse group of individuals, all buzzing with excitement and anticipation for the event. Speaking with others I quickly concluded that this evening was drawing not only those interested in neuroscience, but those interested in women’s rights, autism, molecular biology, and numerous other relevant topics. Various ages and races abounded, and it was evident that this diverse group of people was brought together by a passion for information.

Dr. Pfaff, upon taking the podium, seemed as eager to provide this information as we were to receive it. The evening centered around the presentation of Dr. Pfaff’s recently published book “Man and Woman: An Inside Story of Neurobiology and Sex Differences.” He began the evening discussing the social implications of his work. The topic Dr. Pfaff will most likely receive high praise for is his “3 Hit Theory” of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Taking his cue from the 2 Hit Theory of cancer causation, Dr. Pfaff theorizes that in ASD there is not only the genetic and pre/neonatal stressors involved, but also androgenic hormones. These hormones can cause neuroanatomical sex differences which are controlled by the preoptic area in males and the medial basal hypothalamus in females. Males with ASD have been shown to have enlarged preoptic areas, presumably caused by an over absorption of testosterone in the prenatal period.

This led Dr. Pfaff into his next topic: the different ways in which he has been working with steroid hormone action. Much of Dr. Pfaff’s previous work has dealt with the absorption of hormones, and how this creates individual sex differences, or masculinization of the brain. During the administration of hormones one can simply raise hormone dosage, or they can raise tissue sensitivity, making hormone co-regulators more efficient. Dr. Pfaff introduced the possibility of “re-hooking” hormone responsive axons in order to make them more responsive to hormone absorption. This could make hormone therapy an easier ongoing process for individuals needing long-term treatment.

After this explanation, Dr. Pfaff, like a kid in a candy store, began to talk about new research he has done since the publication of his book; research on nucleosome remodeling. Dr. Pfaff’s research highlights that approximately 9% of the human brain contains nucleosomes which are specifically geared for sex differences. Through researching whether these nucleosomes continue to express gender differences at the genetic level throughout life, Dr. Pfaff began looking at the DNA around histone proteins. From this he has pinpointed how lysine and arginine can change inactive DNA into active nucleotides, which then allows estrogen dependent genes to turn on. This histone modification accounts for the sexual differentiation seen in the medial preoptic area for males, and the central medial hypothalamus in females. Future research can use these findings to better map specific genes which cause sex differences, and the period of development in which these genes are “on.”

After his talk Dr. Pfaff took questions, the nature of which again highlighted the diversity of the audience. Questions were asked about autism, women’s rights, and protein reproduction. Dr. Pfaff answered all to the best of his ability, and was generous enough to point people in the direction of his colleagues in order to better their understanding of anything he could not personally clarify. The evening hummed with a buzzing excitement of his findings, and I felt a sense of contentment that the study of sex differences is heading in directions that will help us better understand the opposite sex, as well as to help treat those with hormone maladies.

Kimberly Epperson is a full-time neuropsychology student in New York City who previously studied musical theater, and hopes to run a research clinic for mentally handicapped adolescents.

What the Internet Is (or Isn’t) Doing to Our Brains

[ 6 ] December 18, 2010

by Noah Hutton
Contributing Editor

“I was losing my ability to tune out distractions and focus on one thing,” began Nicolas Carr. “I contend that the Web moves us back to a primitive way of thinking.”

Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, $26.95). As per the title, he gave a talk last week at the New York Academy of Sciences about his theories on the Internet and what it is doing to us.

But Carr would tell you that these are not just theories– that there is hard, scientific evidence to back up his claims about attention, deep concentration, and multitasking. And that is where the debate has raged since his book was published earlier this year: is there enough empirical evidence yet to conclude that the Net is having harmful effects on our cognitive capacities to concentrate and focus our attention? Or is Carr’s thesis more of a tenuous coalition of thin scientific evidence and overstretched cultural anecdotes about our online culture, all steeped in a fear of the wires and screens of the present, with a nostalgia for the pre-Web past?

Clearly, I tend to side with the latter camp; for those interested in the finer points of what Carr is basing his claims on (for example, there is much debate about Carr’s inclusion of video game studies to make point about Internet usage) I steer you to Jonah Lehrer’s eloquent NYT review of Carr’s book, as well as the comments section of Lehrer’s blog post about his review, where Carr and Lehrer had a Web-based back-and-forth in June about it all. It is important to note that even Carr has admitted the relative lack of evidence: in a September interview for New Scientist, he is quoted as follows:

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of physiological evidence to show how the net affects the brain – but there’s some, and it is compelling. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, shows fairly extensive changes in patterns of brain activation from moderate use of search engines.

Carr is arguing that Internet usage leads to scattered thinking, as one checks email, Facebook, Twitter, then gets back to reading an article or working on whatever they’re actually supposed to be working on. Sure, that’s one way people use the Internet, and I have certainly felt myself procrastinating from time to time, but I also contend I can do more over time because of these tools. People also try to drink and do drugs and then work—but people write different kinds books about that, and they’re found in the self-help section.

Personally, after sifting through the blog posts with their comments, and reading The Shallows, I leave the store not buying the product Carr is selling—for a very basic reason. It’s the reason with which Carr began his discussion of the Internet at the NYAS talk last week.

“Whether they realize it or not, in the early stages, users don’t realize the hidden force of technology,” Carr told the audience. He bemoaned the “compulsive fervor” of Internet consumption, and the inherent “ethic” he believes is embedded in Web-based technology, which, according to Carr’s fears about his own brain which led to all this, is rather unethical. And by the end, he was telling the audience that he believes the Internet is leading us towards a more primitive way of thinking– a step backwards on Carr’s intellectual ladder.

The book we need is not one about what this evil Internet is doing to us, as there is actually no inherent ethic in any tool. It’s all inside of us– this is rule number one from neuroscience. What we perhaps could use is one about how to take ownership of it and use it for what it’s worth. From the comments at Lehrer’s blog:

Following on the warnings of Socrates, does anyone here dispute that books have been a cognitive boon for humankind? With the advent of smartphones, I and millions of others have virtually instantaneous access to vast stores of knowledge. Yesterday over dinner naked mole rats came up in conversation, and I pulled out my Droid, used voice search, and had gobs of new information to add to the discussion. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I used walking navigation to find my way around the city. Personally it seems a huge benefit to be able to spend fewer cognitive resources on storing large amounts of obscure facts or spatial maps. Instead, I have to learn the comparatively cognitive load of learning how to effectively access the information and use it.

The Internet probably does have adverse effects if we use it with the “compulsive fervor” that Carr describes. But Derek James, author of the above comment, clearly doesn’t feel the same scattering ethic Carr does inherent in the tools he’s using.  He seems to be using his tools quite well.

From the first stone tools to maps, clocks, books, and now the Internet, tools are about how we use them and what we use them for. If you’re really worried about distractions on the Internet and really feel a loss of control, then close the laptop and take a walk. It ends up working like any cycle of addiction would—it’s nothing inherent in the thing, it’s about how we use and then abuse our things.

Carr’s fear of the Internet, as if it were a wild beast we have lost control of, will always seem nostalgic, for the active use of tools leads to the invention of new tools, as we figure out what is and isn’t working so that the next step can be taken. These steps are not always in a “forward” or “upward” direction (however one would judge those directions), but at least we’re taking a step. It’s the difference between stepping up to the plate and taking some swings or just standing there and complaining about your bat.

A Day at the Museum

[ 5 ] November 22, 2010

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Brain: The Inside Story” is a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City that will be displayed through August 2011.

I remember being a kid.  I remember being a kid and going on field trips.  I remember being a seventh-grade kid in New York City and going on field trips to the American Museum of Natural History.  That’s why, standing at the threshold of a new exhibit there—Brain: The Inside Story, curated by Rob DeSalle—I try to imagine that I am once again a child, beholding with that ceaseless curiosity and wide-eyed wonderment all that is around me.

This proves not-so-difficult.  The “tunnel” at the start the exhibition is draped with tangled clumps of recycled wire—1500 pounds of material.  It looks like some mischievous giants had a food fight with giant sticky spaghetti.  Meanwhile, beads of light are moving through the thick-and-thin strands.  The installation, by the Spanish artist Daniel Canogar, is meant to represent neurons firing their electrical impulses.  On a plain, white pedestal at the door, a preserved brain—small and shriveled—sits understatedly in a glass case, as if daring someone to underestimate it.  But the “tunnel” transports me inside its magical, gray matter, where I can walk beneath a sparkling canopy of nervous connectivity, a whole world alive within the wrinkles and folds, and I am as amazed as ever that all this happens inside of that.

Emerging from the “tunnel,” I am met by a life-sized projected image of a young dancer, sort of like the Princess Leah hologram only in spandex and a light sweat.  She is in the process of an audition; she is thinking, emoting, and moving.  As a recorded voice explains the correlating brain activity, a large three-dimensional brain model simultaneously lights its corresponding regions up in colors.

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

This multimedia exhibit demonstrates the concept of regional specialization, while reminding that a brain controls a person who lives a life and has a story.  From the “tunnel”—which contains an interpretation of the anatomy and functionality of brain cells—to the dancer—which illustrates cognitive, emotional, and behavioral phenomena—Brain: The Inside Story highlights some different approaches to neuroscience research, and their interrelatedness.

The rest of the exhibition is organized into five categories:  The Sensing Brain, The Emotional Brain, The Thinking Brain, The Changing Brain, and The 21st Century Brain.  At every turn are sights and sounds, and I am reminded of a carnival.  Stand here!  Look through here!  Build this brain!  Play this game!  Touch this screen!

There are illusions like an upside-down Mona Lisa made from spools of thread, and a picture of a rainy day coupled with the sound of what seems to be rainfall—until I discover it is frying bacon.

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

(This deceptive influence of sight on sound is a demonstration of cross-modal perception).  A hulking homunculus stands awkwardly with its enormous hands and mouth, a little too late—sadly—for Halloween.  (The figure reflects the proportions of the somato-sensory cortex devoted to each body part).  And everything shown is also explained by writing and pictures that surround every room, like an engaging textbook on a wall.  Of course, unlike in school, no one has to read.

At about The Changing Brain, I notice a group of school kids making their way excitedly against the flow of we, the media.  They are a diverse seventh-grade class studying neuroscience at a city secondary school.  “I’ve always heard about the things memory can do, now I’m actually seeing it,” one boy tells me, excitedly.  Another boy tells me how cool the exhibition is.  Cool?  For a kid?  I ask him if it makes him want to study the brain more.  He says, without hesitation, almost annoyed (because after all I should already know): “Yes.”  And then he scampers off to play brain teasers with his friends.  This is the main reason that Brain: The Inside Story is such an important exhibition.  It informs and amuses and, although there are more and more educational resources about the brain in the public consciousness, the fact remains that—whether you are young or old or some of both—nothing beats a day at the museum.

For more:
  • Official website for the exhibit at the AMNH.
  • NY Times review of the exhibit.
Seen the “Brain: The Inside Story” exhibit? Let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below:
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