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Good Stories, Well-Told

[ 2 ] June 4, 2010

Contributor Ben Ehrlich Reports on Thursday evening’s The Moth: Grey Matter event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.


The Moth: Grey Matter

Sometime after the appearance of language in the species Homo sapiens the first story was told.  It happened in a tree (in my imagination).  This hypothetical moment would be of the utmost evolutionary importance to some theorists.  Storytelling, like the other ancient and universal arts, could be an adaptive trait.  (Read 2009 Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories).  Or—say Steven Pinker and others—it is a spandrel, an elegant-meaning (if not – sounding) Renaissance term for the triangular space created by the intersection of two arches at a right angle.  (Read 1979 S.J. Gould & R.C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme”).  Now, while I do find this debate to be irresistibly interesting it is simply no substitute for stories themselves.  A good story, well-told, remains infinitely more meaningful than the sum of its deconstructed parts.  It is all about the sharing of experience.  This is the reason I found myself in the packed auditorium at Webster Hall on Thursday night fanning myself with two programs while my knees jutted dangerously into the frontmost aisle.  The Moth, a storytelling organization that features competitions in different cities, was hosting a special “mainstage” event for the World Science Festival called “Grey Matter:  Stories from the Left and Right.” It was a hot ticket;  the line had stretched all the way down 11th street.

The line-up was certainly impressive.  Host Mike Birbiglia opened the night with an uproarious story about bladder cancer, a staple from his well-rehearsed stand-up routine.  I had heard the story live twice before, and laughed anyway.  Good storytelling is always immediate,  as there should be attention for nothing else but the words of the teller. Technically, the first performer was Richard Garriott, who—as Mr. Birbiglia quipped—epitomized nerdiness by making a fortune programming video games in order to fund his own trip into space.  Unfortunately, Mr. Garriott’s ten-minutes expired before he could relate much about his twelve-day orbit to the audience. Next Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist currently at New York University, delivered a wonderful and well-crafted narrative about Memorial Day in Israel and her father, a Holocaust survivor.  Her research with Dr. Elizabeth Phelps and Dr. Joseph LeDoux has focused on painful emotional memories—and the possiblity of disarming them.

Writer Mark Katz told the funniest story of the night, although it had nothing to do with science. Mr. Katz was asked by the Clinton White House to punch up a gala speech for then vice-president Al Gore. He scored a huge hit with a joke that he did not—in fact—write.  The infamous joke:  “Al Gore is so boring that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.”  (Pause for laughter, it’s quite good).  The highlight, however, was learning about the passionate hugging style of our one-time (November 7, 2000 at 8:00pm) president. During another delightful delivery, Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek recounted the controversy he caused by scaring a Long Island banana farmer about potentially apocalyptic “strangelets,” hypothetical particles that may or may not be able to devour the world.  This put the Brookhaven particle accelerator in jeopardy and, more importantly, disturbed what should have been an idyllic vacation for Wilczek.  It was a thrill to hear the physicist speak publically;  he was so clearly brilliant, and as “strange” as those “lets” he spoke of.  After hearing Dr. Wilczek speak, I wonder if one must have a memorably idiosyncratic laugh in order to win a Nobel prize.  (See also:  Kandel, Eric).

The penultimate tale was told with honesty and feeling by the geneticist Kristin Baldwin. She explored the theme of similarity and difference through her relationship with her younger sister, whom she described as her complete opposite.  It was a great performance—and courageous—as I do not believe she is an experienced performer.  I think that the whole audience appreciated her hilarious recollections of conversations with potential suitors about her livelihood: “Oh, I clone mice and make their brains glow.”  Dr. Baldwin, of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, has also collaborated on an art project that uses genetically engineered E. coli bacteria as paint.

The last storyteller was Leonard Mlodinow, the physicist who also wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Macgyver, whose moving account of his own father, a Holocaust survivor, succeeded in affecting perspective.  He talked meaningfully about heroism, as well as actions and consequences.  At times he was forced to pause and step back, as though at a mental crossing, to let a train of painful memories pass.  These were booming and breathtaking silences. For me, this was the height of a great performance.  It all ended in applause, of course, because that is the best way to appreciate a good story.  As long as we praise art, it should not matter how or why it came to exist.  I—for one—would not want to live without it.

Consilience at the World Science Festival in New York City

[ 0 ] May 28, 2010

114576882_3001Sam McDougle and I are guest blogging for the World Science Festival, which will take place in New York City next weekend. Sam’s first post is on “evolutionary bridges”:

In my recent career as an undergraduate, I noticed a curious phenomenon–around my junior year, dorm rooms across the campus were suddenly spending Friday nights captivated by the wonders of the natural world, led along by David Attenborough’s poised intonations. BBC’s Planet Earth box set would soon be as ubiquitous in 18-24 year olds’ DVD collections as The Matrix, Dazed and Confused, and any Wes Anderson venture. As a science student, I was intrigued to see my art-historian/Russian-lit-critic/sociologist friends totally captivated by marine insects and the hunting strategies of wild dogs. [read the full post here]

My first post is about a handful of art/science events at the WSF, one of which includes the vision researcher Margaret Livingstone, whom I’ve written about before on this site.

Some of our greatest triumphs as a species have come from those who saw little difference between being a scientist and being a humanist. From Leonardo’s visionary notebooks to Herschel’s lunar poetry, science has provided a necessary resource for some great art; and art has, in many cases, compelled the progress of scientific research. For Santiago Ramon y Cajál, considered the father of modern neuroscience, it was a childhood spent sketching the branching structures of trees that later reverberated in his pioneering staining techniques of neurons in the brain, yielding some of the most detailed and beautiful scientific imagery of our nervous system to date. [read the full post here]

Check out the WSF site for the full lineup of next weekend’s events.

Rocking the Brainwave Series to its Finish

[ 1 ] April 24, 2010

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux + Guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band in the conclusion of the 2010 Brainwave Series.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

It was a Monday evening, and the last night guests would file in for the 2010 Brainwave series at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. On one side of the stage were the familiar armchairs that have seated such guests as Philip Glass, Charlie Kaufman, Brian Greene, and Mark Morris, among many others in this edition of the series. To the other side of the stage, a new addition caught the eye: two microphones perched on stands in anticipation of this evening’s esteemed guests.

Neuroscientist and bestselling author Joe LeDoux and guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band split their Brainwave event between thoughtful discussions and performances of LeDoux’s original songs written for his band The Amygdaloids, as well as some classics selected by Kaye that played on the central themes of the evening: the mind and brain, fear and memory.

LeDoux’s research at NYU focuses on the mechanisms of fear memory in the brain using rat models, and has lent important insights to our understanding of the amygdala, the almond-shaped component of our deep-seated, evolutionarily older midbrain (we’ve previously covered LeDoux’s work in a podcast and a recent article). With Kaye providing some mind-bending solos, LeDoux performed several brain-themed tunes, both from past Amygdaloids recordings as well as from their upcoming album due for release this June, which will feature Rosanne Cash.

LeDoux and Kaye’s discussion moved from guitar to armchair, tracing a line of inquiry through our evolutionary understanding of the fear response (the most basic emotion, necessary so that we can avoid peril and enjoy the better things in life) to music theory and history, of which Kaye, the author of You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon is particularly well versed.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

“What is it about music that gets so deeply into our brains?” asked Kaye.

“Music does have an ability to glue our past and present together in a way that not much else can,” LeDoux replied.

LeDoux then quoted a line Kaye wrote for the liner notes of the Amygdaloids’ upcoming album:

“Driven by the flash of neuron and receptor, much as the telepathic transference of audio emotion between musician and audience, music is the most mysterious of arts, one of synaptic and sympathetic overtone and vibrato, encompassing memory, language, self-definition, mirrored understanding—a central experience that is as much of our human cognition as is the need for relationships, hunting, gathering, nurturing and love.”

It was art and science dancing around the same issues, searching for truth with all the tools present. As one of LeDoux’s lyrics goes: “Mind over matter/It’s something I’ve been trying to do/break down space and time/be together with you.”


The 2010 Brainwave series, produced by Tim McHenry, brought a wonderful array of artists and scientists to the stage for unscripted dialogues over the past months that ranged from the neuroscience of feng shui to the possibility of life on other planets. There was something to be learned at each night of this brilliantly curated program: some nights the conversation produced something vastly more than the sum of its participants; other nights the individual expertise and insights of the presenters alone carried the evening along. The unscripted nature of the evenings always lent a particular sense of excitement to the proceedings—an excitement that will now linger until the next iteration of Brainwave opens the doors to the Rubin’s basement auditorium.

Wired for Worship

[ 2 ] April 16, 2010

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger + Neuroscientist John Kubie at Brainwave 2010

gods-brainDebate about religion is almost as old as religion itself.  What is religion?  Does it have a purpose?  From the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, it seems as though everyone has an opinion.  The Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger, along with the UCLA neuropsychiatrist Michael McGuire, has attempted to make a scientific argument about religion in the new book God’s Brain.  Dr. Tiger appeared at the penultimate event of The Rubin Museum of Art’s Brainwave series, where he was joined onstage by SUNY-Downstate neuroscientist John Kubie.  The two men considered the question of whether human beings are “wired for worship.”

The most important part of the conversation was in fact not conversational at all.  Dr. Kubie, whose lab focuses on the function of the hippocampus on spatial perception, gave a five minute lecture on the serotonergic system, responsible for the distribution of the chemical reward. Best known as the focus of a class of anti-depressants—SSRIs—serotonin was initially discovered to be a substance that induces powerful muscle contractions.  Only 1% of the body’s serotonin stores are located in the brain.  80% is found in the gut, and has been proven necessary for male mating behavior in the sea slug C. elegans (The Lesson in Love:  Go With Your Gut?).

It has become popular to link serotonin to an ever broadening spectrum of behavior.  After all, neurons in the Raphé nuclei in the brain stem (an evolutionarily ancient structure), where serotonin is released, project throughout the brain.  But it is a vastly complex network; it seems a long way from ten carbon, twelve hydrogen, two nitrogen, and one oxygen to a rabbi, a priest, and an imam walking into a bar.

Of course, though his stated aim is to embrace the phenomenon of religion, Dr. Tiger understands this.  The problem of “Why Religion?” is by nature philosophical and thus incessantly complicated by language and theory.  Science can never satisfactorily (by its own critical standards) explain religion, its discourse will merely replace another equally incomplete one.  There is no net epistemological gain, though that is not necessarily the point.  People struggle with religion, and a shared search for its meaning makes perfect sense. In the basement of the Rubin Museum, did not something religious take place?  There was serotonin, there was community (there was wine, there was classical music).  What I mean to say is this:  No one can adequately define Religion.  Is it the institutions?  Is it the impulse?  What are we studying?  What are we embracing?

There are no answers.  If you liked Dr. Tiger’s other books, I would recommend God’s Brain. That is, if you enjoy the exercise of pop-theory.  (You could, of course, try Dr. Kubie’s neurobiology class.  To each his own).

The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory

[ 2 ] April 1, 2010

Leading researchers from around the world present their latest research into the neuroscience of memory at New York University.

Neuron by neuron, we snap together mental structures, constantly evolving palaces of memory that we carry with us until we die.

– George Johnson, In the Palaces of Memory

"The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory," a symposium held at New York University last weekend, brought together some of the foremost neuroscientists from around the world who are investigating the way our brains store, retrieve, and make use of our collected experiences.

"The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory," a symposium held at New York University last weekend, brought together some of the foremost neuroscientists from around the world who investigate the way our brains store, retrieve, and make use of our collected experiences.

As we move through the world, our senses measure the raw data of our experience: a touch is registered by slight changes in pressure on our skin’s surface; a shrill siren rattles the hair cells within our ears. We experience our environment through these physical interfaces—and, like a sponge onto water, we soak up this raw data for everything it’s worth. From the moment our nervous system coalesces, we measure the world with these evolved systems so that we can begin to predict its tendencies and find useful patterns amid the chaos.

Far from storing individual memories in individual cells, the picture of memory in the brain that has emerged in the last half-century of active research is one of a widely distributed and dynamic system involving networks of neurons throughout the brain. In the mid-20th century, Donald Hebb set forth the influential idea that cells which fire together will wire together; Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning research in the 1960s illustrated the beautiful symphony of neurotransmitters and proteins on the cellular level that accounts for these experience-based changes to the physical structures of the brain—the gradual remodeling of our palaces of memory.

Now, as we face this 21st century of ever-intensifying research into the central nervous system, memory—like consciousness and sleep—remains one of the essential questions about the brain. How, on the most basic levels, does a constellation of cells and synapses store a lifetime of information? What are the mechanisms that cause memories to fade, shift, or be rewritten over time?  How much sleep do I need tonight to remember writing this tomorrow?

This past weekend, some of the leading memory researchers from around the world gathered at New York University for a two-day symposium entitled “The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory,” hosted by the NYU Center for Neural Science. Assembling the experts into thematic triads with twenty-five minutes allotted for each presentation, the organizers smartly moved the program from presentations on Saturday morning about the “building blocks of biological learning machines” to more specialized avenues of research into memory erasure, long-term storage and retrieval, and functional localization of memory in the hippocampus and other structures in the brain as presented in Sunday’s talks.

As all investigations of complex biological systems evolved over millions of years should, Seth Grant of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge began the symposium with a riveting exploration of “The Origins of the Synapse and Evolution of Adaptive Behavior.” According to his research, we should think of the brain as a structure that evolved millions of years earlier than we currently believe, with primitive organisms containing proteins and molecular arrangements that Grant’s genomic research indicates were precursors to the synapse. These primitive systems were scaled up to form the complex nervous systems we now call a “brain.” His talk helped to cement the idea that our vastly complex nervous system grew from very simple structures that evolved for basic solutions to tractable environmental pressures. We must understand that there is a “deep ancestry of synaptic evolution,” as Grant put it.

Henry Markram, director of The Blue Brain Project at EPFL in Lausanne (and whom I’m working with on a 10-year documentary film project), followed with a whirlwind tour through his latest research into the balance of nature versus nurture on the level of neurons and synapses. Markram is using multicellular patch-clamp recording techniques to measure the activity of up to twelve cells at once, allowing him and his team to grasp, with increased resolution, the role of these cells with within a larger network. The take-home message is that we should perhaps think more about the dynamics at the synapse and less about the constant branching of axons and shifting of cellular structures when it comes to memory. The brain, with its vast networks of interconnected neurons, may be more hard-wired than we often believe, with slight modulations to chemical release accounting for the storage of experience more so than the dramatic reshaping and extension of axons to connect with new cells every time a memory is formed.

Moving from the extreme bottom-up approach to one focused on behavior as well as cells, Joseph LeDoux’s talk, entitled “Building Blocks of the Fear Learning Machine,” related the latest insights from his research into the structural underpinnings of fear and memory in the brain  (we previously profiled LeDoux’s research into emotional memory and fear learning here), which continue to suggest that memory is much more dynamic and flexible than once thought—updating, revising, and re-filing of memories are processes that LeDoux’s talk as well as a bevy of other researchers at the symposium handled in neuroscientific terms.

Marie Monfils, who once worked in LeDoux’s lab, presented new work from her UT Austin lab, where she is investigating the interaction of reconsolidation and extinction in fear memory. Some of the latest insights from LeDoux, Monfils and others concern the process of bringing a stored memory back into conscious awareness so that it can be “updated” and sent back into storage, re-colored (hopefully for the better, in the case of traumatic memories) so that next time it’s hauled out of the closet it feels nicer to put on. The esteemed researcher Yadin Dudai, who gave the keynote address for the symposium entitled “The Engram Shaped and Reshaped: Lessons from the Rat Neocortex,” may have put it best: “The best memory is the memory you never use. Once you use it, it becomes unstable.”

This research could have significant clinical implications– but the symposium made it clear that more work needs to be done before we can tease out any such approaches to the vast and tangled system that is memory in the brain. Todd Saktor of SUNY Downstate Medical Center presented intriguing research into the activity of PKM, a protein which acts as a sort of housekeeper to aid in the storage of long-term memory in the brain, maintaining the synapses that link together the constellations of cells that encode our past experiences (for more, see this article about a study involving PKM).

Saktor and others are interested in what happens when PKM is inhibited, thus preventing the normal levels of housekeeping in networks of memory-encoding neurons. In the work done so far, there is promising evidence that blocking PKM seems to effectively erase certain memories in animal models by letting synapses fade into inactivity. This research, combined with new insights into other drug agents such as Propanolol that modulate fear memory, suggests that clinical applications of these new avenues of memory research–perhaps even for PTSD– may be approaching in the years to come.

In similar lines of research, Sheena Josselyn of the University of Toronto spoke of the need to find “the bare minimum of neurons needed to encode a fear memory” in order to finally define an engram; Bong-Kiun Kaang of the Seoul National University gave a talk entitled “Dynamic Nature of Long-term Memory” that elegantly moved between explanations of protein degradation and the degradation of long-term memories stored within these networks of proteins, cells and synapses. On Sunday, speakers shifted to considerations of larger structures and behavioral applications of memory research: Charan Ranganath of UC Davis spoke of research into improving episodic memory through behavioral training, and others spoke to new findings about the hippocampus, a key control center of all memory systems in the brain.

Paving the road from behavior to cellular structures and back again is a pursuit that linked all the talks at the symposium, and will surely continue to be the singular goal of this developing field. On the whole, the research continues to point to the flexibility and widely distributed nature of memory. Like steam rising through a house, our experiences come to fill the complex chambers of our brain throughout our lives, billowing about in every conscious moment and subject to constant rearrangement, re-emergence, and dissipation. One day we may be able to use new techniques to erase the unwanted, ensure the consolidation of the necessary, and re-color the pained. But perhaps the best thing we can do for now is try to get eight hours of sleep.

Pondering Life Out There

[ 1 ] March 25, 2010

Astrophysicist Fred Adams + Indie Rocker Claire Evans in Brainwave 2010

Musician Claire Evans (left) and astrophysicist Fred Adams discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

Musician Claire Evans (left) and astrophysicist Fred Adams discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

“Do you think it’s the nature of life to destroy itself?” asked Claire Evans, one half of the indie rock band Yacht and author of the blog Universe.

“No I don’t think so. I’m more inclined to believe that life is plentiful but communication is rare,” answered astrophysicist Fred Adams, author of the acclaimed book The Five Ages of the Universe.

For just over an hour, Evans and Adams engaged in one of Brainwave’s most intelligently handled discussions of a topic that can easily veer into the overly-speculative. This is the third incarnation of the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which pairs astronomers, physicists, and neuroscientists with a variety of artists, journalists, and other figures from the humanities (check out our ongoing coverage of the series).

Evans and Adams took the stage on Sunday to offer their own answers—ranging from speculative to evidence-based—to the question of the existence of other life-forms in the universe, and the chances of ever communicating with them. At several key moments, the pair smartly folded the discussion back onto questions about human nature and the desire to reach out into the cosmos to find beings after our own image.

Evans, whose thoughtfulness and breadth of knowledge on the subject is evidenced by both her writing and her eloquence during Sunday’s discussion, began by explaining Fermi’s Paradox—which asks the simple question: Where is everybody? In a universe this expansive, this full of stars and planetary systems—why have we not encountered extraterrestrial beings?

Evans and Adams tackled the handful of obstacles that keep Fermi’s question the paradox that it is. For one, any communication arriving from another star’s planetary system would take thousands upon thousands of years to arrive on earth, and perhaps more, forever bound to the speediest known constant: the speed of light. With the closest star being two thousand light years away from our own sun, we may finally hear—if anything—the radiowave-riding soap opera soundtrack from a bygone civilization millenia after their demise (not to anthropomorphize too much—a tendency the speakers noted is our human habit in discussing extraterrestrial life).

Do we assume that because we’ve evolved brains that allow us to peer into the depths of the cosmos that there must be other brains out there peering back? Can life evolve spontaneously in another planet’s environment? Given that we’ve only been human for one million years, and technological humans for perhaps several thousand, the slice of time in which we’ve found ourselves asking these questions is the narrowest of pieces in the cosmic pie.

“It could be that there is vastly more intelligent life out there than us, but they just don’t care to talk to us, just as we don’t care to talk to ants or cockroaches,” Adams mused.

In reality, Adams noted that some life may exist on ice-covered planets or moons just as it does at the bottoms of our own oceans—extremophiles fed not by the warmth of the sun but by hydrothermal vents from the deep.

What about the ending to the story of life on our own planet? As our own sun heats to become a red giant in three billion years, life on this planet—if it’s still around—will come to an end.

To the delight of the audience, Adams lucidly explained the possibility of ejecting Earth from the solar system to avoid the exploding sun by means of harnessing a large asteroid and whipping it around the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, then grazing past Earth just close enough to pull our planet out of its orbit. Falling away from the sun on spaceship Earth, deep-sea microbial life could continue unharmed for eons more. For any humans who are still around (now we’re getting speculative), the ending could be poetic.

“I thought it would make for a beautiful science fiction story. Every day waking up and seeing the sun further and further away, until your entire planet is frozen,” said Evans. The briefest of hushes swept across the room.

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