12.30.2008

Apocalypse Porn

I don't know why this is, but pop culture is obsessed with the various ways the world can end. And I blatantly admit I am part of that group. Why is it so intriguing to imagine the planet engulfing itself into a black hole (my favorite), or freezing over, or having all of human life wiped out by a super virus? Hollywood has been banking on these scenarios for a while now, and I'll put my $11 down more often than not just to watch the CGI rendering of it on the big screen.

Well, Discovery channel is praying on my disaster lust with a really beautiful HD scenario of an asteroid making earth a little less hospitable for a while, all to the tune of Pink Floyd's Great Gig In The Sky. (Via fellow Apocalypse Porn Addict, Alex Rainert)

(Here is the link to the HD version if it didn't embed properly below...)

12.07.2008

The Hiccup Project

A long time ago, I had this idea I would write a screenplay about a guy that rises to fame curing hiccups around the world. I deemed myself a shaman that had the powers to sniff them out, and exorcise the demons from the body. If I put on a good enough show, it really did cure people's hiccups because they believed it. It was a form of hypnosis really.

I can't say I understand a lot about the mechanism of hiccups or why they happen, but I did figure out that if you can distract someone from them, they go away. From Wikipedia:

"While numerous home remedies are offered, they mostly fall into three broad categories. These categories include purely psychosomatic cures centered around relaxation and distraction..."
As people were leaving my friend Alex's holiday party last night, I noticed my tipsy friend had the hiccups, and I could tell they were the lethal kind that makes you feel like either you can't breathe or that you might puke. Since I didn't have the energy to put on the old hiccup-curing shaman act, I asked her to count down in sevens from 101, which she found really irritating. One, because I think she was paranoid that she wasn't good at math (distraction #1), and two, that she was a bit annoyed that I was forcing the issue so much (distraction #2).

So with some more coaxing, we did it together: "ninety....four....eighty...seven..." She was so self-conscious and distracted that by the time she got to seventy three, they were gone. Felt good that I was able to help, but I think she was still mad that I made her do math on a Saturday night...go figure...

Upon a little more research, I found an evolutionary theory of hiccups. Amphibians have a specific motor respiratory mechanism that has them gulp air and water, which basically looks like a human hiccup. So this respiration reflex is an antecedent to our modern, mammalian version of breathing. This would explain why infants have the hiccups so frequently - they haven't fully developed the normal breathing mechanism, and are still enacting a phylogenetically earlier respiratory characteristic.

It seems we are on the precipice of learning how much willful control we can have over what we ordinarily consider our "automatic" physiology. The process of how to manipulate physical processes is obviously still sloppy, but I have a feeling new and proven techniques are going to explode into pop culture. Curing hiccups is only the beginning my friends...

[Another thing to consider - why is it so fun to watch people with hiccups?]



Especially Southern Meteorologists:

12.05.2008

Homosexual Necrophiliac Ducks

I found about this from a friend last night in the typical perverted mallard sex practices conversation one often overhears at New York art openings. Frankly, I figured she was making this up, especially when she casually mentioned that the scientist studying these little miscreants, Kees Moeliker, won the Nobel peace prize for biology.

He describes hearing a thud outside his office, which was a specific genus of mallard doing a nose dive right into his window (one of those tragicomedy realities of civilization throwing curveballs at nature). When he went to survey the damage, he noticed another mallard casing out his dead counterpart:

The unfortunate duck apparently had hit the building in full flight at a height of about three metres from the ground. Next to the obviously dead duck, another male mallard (in full adult plumage without any visible traces of moult) was present. He forcibly picked into the back, the base of the bill and mostly into the back of the head of the dead mallard for about two minutes, then mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force, almost continuously picking the side of the head.
Apparently, this particular Sting-esque mallard practices tantric necrophilia, as he made sweet duck love for (and I shit you not) over SEVENTY FIVE minutes.

My big question last night - was this ever repeated? And it seems the answer is no. I haven't looked closely yet, but I'm a little unclear what it is about one case of a psycho sexual duck that warrants receiving a Nobel peace prize. Then again, it seems they'll give those things to anyone these days. Here's Donald reenacting the scene:


11.17.2008

Neuro-Consciousness Focus Group Part 2: Girl Talk

In sort of an odd twist of fate, my good friend Alex got me a ticket to see Girl Talk last night at Terminal 5 and we went with his wife and a few friends. If you haven't heard of Girl Talk, it's a DJ who does a lot of mashing - take a hook from a Nine Inch Nails song and play it alongside Kelly Clarkson's "Since You Been Gone." Quite a sweet spot for drunken, 20-something hipsters. It's pure marketing genius really - it's going to be a while before those little lab rats stop hitting that lever.

A few posts ago I discussed frame shifting in the context of listening to over a thousand 15-second snippets of music for a focus group. Girl Talk effectively re-created that experience, except it was far more fun and clever. What's funny is that you spend half the time either dancing (Alex and Karen) or staring blankly into space wondering what song that beat playing under the Van Halen riff comes from (Kevin, Gabe, and Micah). Once you figure it out, you continually crave the mental act of dissecting the "songs."

We went for a drink after the show and my friend Oliver was frustrated with the song playing at the bar. Not realizing he was joking, I asked why he didn't like it. "It won't change! And it's not mashed up with anything!"

We are the generation of frame shifters. Somehow I think that doesn't apply to me, but as I write this post, I have four different instant message conversations going on, a few emails I'm responding to, some very heavy texting, and the occasional phone call. The characters, relationships, and plot are all totally different in each, yet I'm effortlessly and obsessively switching between them at lightning speed. In fact, when a few of the conversations begin to slow I get tense as if I'm not stimulated enough.

I guess this is what the future tastes like. Sometimes I worry that I've gotten too good at compartmentalizing my emotions. I'm having one conversation with a girl that just had a tough break up, and another with a friend recapping the prior evening's highlights. Is that disrespectful to my friend going through a tough time? On occasion I feel guilty when that happens. Is there a dark side to all this frame shifting?

11.16.2008

Atheists Like to Make Fun of Religious People

Ouch, not exactly subtle, guys, but good for a giggle...

I do like "talking to the ceiling"

11.15.2008

Music Neuro-Consciousness Focus Group?

In the effort to supplement my income, I sign up for the occasional focus group here in NYC. These are not usually very stimulating affairs. In fact, I usually leave wondering if the incredibly banal experience is worth the 100-200 clams. But this last one felt more like an experiment in psychology and neuroscience - I thought Daniel Leviten was hiding somewhere behind a one way mirror.

The focus group was for a new, rock radio station. Over the course of four hours (split over two days), me and about 50 other subjects listened to 15-second snippets of over a thousand songs and subsequently rated them. As a musician and an avid music fan, I figured this would be interesting. I recognized roughly 90% of the songs I heard, and liked about 50%. The music ranged from Radiohead, Kings of Leon, and Pearl Jam to Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, and The Doors.

I can't imagine what my brain scan images under un fMRI machine would have looked like. I thought my amygdala was going to catch fire by the end. After last night's second session, I left there with a massive headache. I assume it was brought on by the intense emotional responses of each song I listened to.

It was like an exercise in emotional frame shifting - a new scene once every 15 seconds. An inadvertent reminder that emotion does not happen in a vacuum. There was a whole scene associated with every song that elicited images and feelings from memory. Sights, sounds, smells, people, places, objects, sex, childhood, anger, frustration, elation, depression, regret, euphoria. My brain felt like a hurricane - bounding around in the storm of one's memory is the closest thing we have to time travel, I felt like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five coming unstuck in time. A brief excerpt of my internal play:

(first song starts)
Oh, I used to listen to that song in the car with my dad when I was five years old, felt safe and happy...
(change song)
My mother loved this song and she used to play it on the piano in the living room, it was a meloncholy song, but I loved how she played it, she was such a good music-
(change song)
Fast forward to 23 years od - breakup song, wish I wasn't hearing this right now, I'm sad and bitter and remembering her face, which I used to be attracted to, god, i hope i never have to see her again...
(change song)
Ha, my brother used to attempt playing this song during his brief stint on the saxophone, sounded like he was killing a goose in his bedroom, shit I need to call him...
(change song)
Sweet! - I used to listen to this on my yellow Sony Sports Walkman while I mowed the lawn when I was 15, screaming over the mower to sing along. I found out later my parents used to get a kick out of that image.
(change song)
Oh shit, this is the song my friends and I used to listen to while driving around in my friend's black, Nissan 300ZX that he got from his uncle, right after our good friend died in a car accident - an odd combination of nostalgia, euphoria, devastating regret and sadness. I wonder how his parents are-
(change song)
Back to 12 years old, this was playing during a 7th grade dance when I first french kissed Ornella Rullo, she had chinese food for dinner that night. I was wearing red pants for some reason. Man, that was a good first french kiss, we were only TWELVE-
(change song)
Maybe I do like Tom Petty? This is from that cheese-y, tripped out Alice in Wonderland video where Alice looks like a blond Karen Carpenter, and there's that scene where her body is a cake, and the Mad Hatter is cutting himself and everyone else a piece. Ha ha...
Okay, my headache is coming back...I think you get the point.

(On a side note, upon re-watching the video below, I'm impressed with my memory's ability to remember that it was the Mad Hatter cutting the cake - haven't seen that video in at least 7-8 years...)

11.14.2008

If You're Considering Going on Anti-Depressants

Consider how hard it is to come off them. Pharma Industry watchdog, Philip Dawdy works his ass off chronicling the endless side effects while on and tapering off anti-depressants (as well as anti-psychotic meds) on his blog, Furious Seasons. He populates his blog with three to four, if not five posts a day with facts and stories on patient experiences, his own experiences, and the daily goings on in the psychotropic drug world.

Not to mention the brave guy has to suffer endless abuse from readers that he is either anti-psychiatry, or oddly pro-pharma - neither of which are true. I think what Mr. Dawdy is doing is incredibly vital, and an important reminder that we're still far from a truly functional paradigm that relates the brain, consciousness, and mood.

An excerpt from one of his posts today:

I was out on a walk yesterday afternoon and ran into a friend in the neighborhood, one who I don't run into so much these days. She's in her late-20s and told me she was feeling crappy. Why? I asked.

"Oh, I finished tapering off my anti-depressant and I feel all slowed down."

The anti-depressant in question was citalopram (Celexa in branded form) and she'd tapered down from 10 mgs. over four weeks, a bit too fast in my experience. But she wanted off the drug, which she'd been on for two years, because she felt it wasn't doing much for her, so she went for it. We talked and as it came out she'd experienced some of the buzzing in the back of the neck that many people experience coming off an SSRI. No brain flashes though.

I assured her the sluggishness she was feeling was fairly common following SSRI withdrawal and that hopefully it would clear up in a week or two. But it could take longer. She was worried about having to go back on citalopram. I told her about some I know in Seattle who's been hooked" (his term for it, not mine) on Prozac for 20 years, despite several lengthy attempts to taper off the drug.

I sensed she hadn't looked into any outside resources for managing her withdrawal--Peter Breggin would've argued for a much longer taper--and I told her that what she was experiencing was almost entirely unresearched by researchers.

It's just astounding, seems like an added bonus for drug makers that the withdrawal from these pills are so painful. I try not to be extreme on this blog, but the way these drugs are sold, marketed, and prescribed is just irresponsible and evil. The irony is that these anti-depressants are billed as "medicine" by your doctors who so often seem to oversell their benefits. Makes me so angry.

Anyway, thanks to your continued hard work and sacrifice, Philip. Keep fighting the good fight.

11.12.2008

Global Warming - A Crisis of the Mind? RIP Michael Crichton

Well, I don't share my viewpoint on this topic with many people. Basically, my friend Kevin, and my Dad are the only other atheists to both God and Global Warming. It's not an easy viewpoint to have these days, especially living in Brooklyn, NY - a place where people danced in the streets on election night as if world peace was announced. Bill Maher in his silly, smug way proclaimed the other day that our "planet is melting." PZ Myers in his blowhard, asinine blog voice insulted a teenage girl who tried to determine the reality of global warming based on her own research into the literature. Of course she would have been applauded had she concluded it was anthropogenic.

It is an obvious and irritating irony to hear atheists painting doomsday scenarios if we don't change our ways. I'm always amused to hear left-leaning people so outraged at the Bush administration's use of 9/11 to propel their agenda. Meanwhile, we're repeatedly told by democrat policy makers that the planet will be ruined by the time our children are adults, and that the majority of natural disasters are our fault. The hypocrisy of calling fear tactics on one side, while blatantly using them on your own is astounding.

Watch below as Iam Pilmer manages to irritate everyone in the room as he describes how environmentalism is the new religion (thanks, Kevin). He makes some really beautifully illustrated points. Parts actually seem lifted from the late Michael Crichton's lecture on the topic.



"Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

"And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly it seems facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them."
RIP M. Crichton, it takes tremendous courage to fight the majority opinion when it's wrong. He took a lot of flak for his unique perspective, and I believe history will prove him right. It makes him a real hero of mine.

11.05.2008

Bjork Dismantles Her TV

Once again, I'm not what this has to do with this blog, but I feel that it does, so here it is.

"You shouldn't let poets lie to you"

A Break in the Action

Look, I'm not apologizing okay? This is really more of a journal than a blog, and I am a busy man! And it's lame to be out for drinks only tell people that you have to run home and post to your neuroblog. Got some hopefully fun, random, and interesting stuff on the way...just hang in there, i know you've been feeling incomplete...

9.12.2008

Gaming Leads to Science?

Cool article in Wired about the community of young gamer boys who do extensive research on how to crack the patterns of video games (or whatever the kids are calling them these days). They're using the scientific method in their analysis - combing data in spreadsheets, introducing new data sets, and reviewing the predictive ability of their models. The irony is, these same boys are sluggish when it comes to science in school:

One of the reasons kids get bored by science is that too many teachers present it as a fusty collection of facts for memorization. This is precisely wrong. Science isn't about facts. It's about the quest for facts -- the scientific method, the process by which we hash through confusing thickets of ignorance. It's dynamic, argumentative, collaborative, competitive, filled with flashes of crazy excitement and hours of drudgework, and driven by ego: Our desire to be the one who figures it out, at least for now. It's dramatic and nutty and fun.
I really like this description, it reminded me of the process of writing music. It's often painful, but the moments of discovery are always worth it. The key as he says above, is about having the motivation (or even better, obsession) to power through the predominantly frustrating phases.

Man, my aggregate knowledge of all things gaming could fit onto a Commodore 64 floppy disk. Given the advances in the field, I'm starting to realize that may have to change soon...

(Thanks, Alex)

The Neuroscience of Politics

My favorite neurblogger, Jonah Lehrer over at Frontal Cortex had a really excellent post on the madness of identity politics. I was going too chime in with my opinion here, but I think this says it all:

If neuroscience and psychology can teach us anything about politics, it's that we should approach the sport with a sense of irony and an appreciation for contingency. Yes, crucial issues are at stake - let's not forget that - but the political process is rarely about these issues. Instead, it's about reaffirming an irrational identity and tickling those gut feelings that operate at a very subterranean level. After all, I can easily imagine an alternate childhood that would have tilted me towards conservative politics. (Fortunately, my parents were part of that coastal elite that sips lattes all day long and hates God. Or so Guiliani would have you believe.) As a result, I ended up with an identity that lets me relate to people like this (picture of enthusiastic Obama fans)

9.09.2008

The Invasion

The retread of The Body Snatchers out last year with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig was not a great movie, but an interesting concept. A prescription happy psychiatrist is dosing her patients and her own son with muscle relaxers, anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications. After a crash landing by a space shuttle, which carries an alien virus effecting the brain, we begin to see people walking around like emotionless automatons with their memories preserved. As the infection perpetuates itself across the globe, wars end, and people live in relative peace.

The movie itself is a typical thriller with relatively predictable chase scenes and startle moments. Like I Am Legend, it's basically a zombie movie with some different physical/psychological features of the infected. These zombies don't have much goo/blood on them (just a little that disappears after a while), and the only thing that sets them apart from regular people is that they are as composed as hindu cows - even while watching people throw themselves off buildings.

I have to say, the comparison of zombies to people on psychotropic pharmaceuticals is extreme, but seems pretty apt. It was creepy to see an infected kid staring down at his Halloween candy completely uninterested - seems reminiscent of what an over-medicated child on ritalin looks like. It's a creepy reminder that a lot of anti-depressants like paxil cause a major loss in libido, so much so that they actually prescribe it to sex offenders. It's like Welcome to the Monkey House predicted all of this...

Sometimes it feels like the goal of humanity (or at least the drug industry) is to wipe out emotion, or to have emotions cordoned off and unavailable as if they're a vestigial feature of humanity. As the number of people on prescription psychotropic drugs continues to rise, there is something inherently relevant and haunting about the concept of The Invasion. As technology increases and attention spans decrease, and as the varying streams of emotional information enter our consciousness on a second-by-second basis, our collective ability to frame shift continues to improve. While that can be seen as a good thing, it also makes me wonder if we're not on a trend towards a society of sociopaths...or maybe at best, vulcans.

An understanding of what causes specific emotions will empower an individual to cope with them, as opposed to drugs like SSRI's which have next to no underlying hypothesis as to how they work. The old body snatchers concept is an interesting reminder that we're still in the dark ages when it comes to our understanding of emotion.

By the way, here's a trailer where you basically get to see the whole movie:

8.23.2008

Neuroscience and Physics?

Physics is like an entangled particle of neuroscience - one studies the nature of reality as it is, and the other strives to reveal the machinations and content of our skewed interpretations of reality. They seem inexorably linked; like the yin and yang of science.

For the last fifty years, physicists have been fruitlessly searching for the unified theory that combines general relativity, which explains the behavior of stars and planets, and quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of atoms, electrons, and quarks. String theory is the leading candidate to solve the problem, but it not only lacks evidence, it lack an experimental paradigm to prove it right or wrong. It is based on elegant formulas, and apparently, the math is beautiful, but the explanation is a bit of a mess. For it to be true, it requires an extra seven dimensions, additional to the four we have now.

String theorists are very attached to their Big Answer - and they are protective over it. How could they not be? They've spent their lives trying to prove this thing correct, so they instinctively attack any voice of dissent.

Well, not to goad, but there is a huge voice lurking - Garrett Lisi, is a ski bum physicist who dropped out of academia for ten years, and recently returned with a unique Theory of Everything. Typically, in the stodgy academic community, he's been met with a lot of resistance from the string theorists who are quick to dismantle his ideas. It should be noted that his theory only needs the four dimensions we live in now.

It's an interesting story about science - I think Lisi (who some call the next Einstein) is onto something with his theory. But I find it disturbing that the old-guard string theorists feel the need to attack it. This idea that the science community holds truth as its #1 priority is a flattering representation at best. In my experience, scientists hold their celebrity and reputation in more esteem than the explanatory power of their discoveries. It's the same in politics, art, and music. Science at least boasts a system of selecting out the bullshit - over time.

The encouraging thing is to see how the internet enables a faster mode of communication and posting theories and studies. Lisi received acclaim and criticism by posting his theory on arXiv, a non-peer-reviewed site on physics and mathematics. Maybe the internet will do to science what it has done to the music industry - remove the dinosaurs and let the highest quality product stand out.

The other interesting facet of physics that relates to neuroconsciousness is how often the most atheistic of physicists sound like they're referring to almost supernatural phenomenon when describing current theories (or like they just dropped acid). It's almost like a cognitive dissonance - sure, you don't believe in God or ghosts, but you're asking me to believe in an infinite number of universes and eleven dimensions? Maybe this is why I like Lisi's theory so much, it appreciates the elegance and reality of nature without having to write a science fiction story to explain it (don't get me wrong, I love the science fiction stories, just not sure I believe them).

I consistently go back and fourth on the idea of a multiverse, which is consonant with quantum physics. The other option is determinism, which basically states there is only one possibility for every outcome, which means fate is real, and free will is an illusion. If I had to chose which of those is true, I have no idea what I'd prefer.

[In an interesting side note, a few psychologists examined the moral implications of determinism. What happens when individuals start to believe they lack free will.]

What's interesting about physics is that discussions on the topic almost serve as a blank canvas for people's predilections and beliefs - from lay person to nobel prize winner. It's very much like religion - it often tries to explain the almost unexplainable. It would be an interesting question to give people the choice: string theory/multiverse vs. determinism - or maybe the third option is "God made it all." Then again, it seems God falls into the determinism category. Certainly, people's answers would elucidate a lot about their character - like a physics/neuroconsciousness rorchach test.

8.22.2008

The Uncanny Valley Theory Gets Deeper...and Creepier

Human face emulation for video games is starting to hit a new level as we approach sci-fi reality one creepy step at a time. I'm not sure I would have been able to tell this woman was computer generated if I hadn't known prior to watching it, though I feel confident I still would have caught on. Still, it's the closest I've seen.

(Though on second watching it's impossible to miss her animated movements - I think I was initially distracted by the discomfort of finding her attractive. Eat your heart out Jessica Rabbit. Still, the uncanny valley theory strikes again.)

You have to love the self-deprecation of the guys that built her - she slings barbs at her own creators. What an animatronic bitch.

The challenges of this kind of work is apparently getting the eye movements right, as well as the naturally asymmetrical gestures of human facial musculature.

The creators of the chip technology, which enable this feat, say by 2020 we won't be able to distinguish between real and computer generated - still a ways to go...

8.19.2008

An Elegant Explanation of Addiction

Marc Kern has an excellent post on the nature of addiction. He basically breaks down the various addictions into active (e.g., gambling, smoking, shopping, drinking, etc) and passive (e.g., failing to exercise, inability to work or study, watching too much TV).

It is a subtle and seductive process, which occurs over the course of time. What seems to happen is this: In the early stages of our unhealthy behavior, we are sociologically introduced to a substance or an activity that gives us immediate positive feelings while masking the realities and responsibilities of everyday life.

Through friends, acquaintances, advertising, or just plain accident, we are introduced to things like cigarettes, alcohol, street drugs, pornography, shopping, the advantages of being sick, certain types of food, or even the 'good old' work ethic.

Through the gradual use of these substances or behavior patterns our biological drives take over and we start to need or even crave this stimulus. Before we know it, the needs of our mind have taken control and through our psychological processes we can feel stimulated and relaxed at the same time.

We can feel powerful and friendly, or closeted and protected from the world. It is the FEELING that leads to the ACTION. The substance or behavior that seems to work the best becomes our "Elixir" of choice, our "secret thing" that we do that we think no one else recognizes in us.
This is a theory that strikes a rare balance between neurological and consciousness-based ideas. I tend to shy away from molecular neurobiological explanations of addiction. Of course there are neurological underpinnings to any behavior, but the understanding of how and why an addiction takes place has to be seen in the context of an individual's life experience as well.

For more, I take you to Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story:

8.18.2008

Lady Demands Government Explain Rainbows

"We as a nation have got to ask ourselves what the hell is going on."

I mean, rainbows are pretty perplexing, I know, but I don't think it's a consipiracy...

This really didn't need an explanation, it's just plain funny...

8.14.2008

Funny British Journalist Lady Experiments With Weed for 30 Days

Almost like a British Super Size Me, Nicky Taylor will smoke pot for 30 days to determine its effects on her while she investigates the medical, legal, and social ramifications of legalizing marijuana. Get ready, she's a giggler...

The clip below is particularly funny as we watch her try her first joint since college in an Amsterdam coffee shop - she is aptly warned to take a "few puffs" and wait ten minutes before she takes anymore. In a distinctly British way she calmly describes her feeling of utter panic after smoking not two or three, but 25 puffs before it sets in. You feel for her a bit, but it's pretty funny.

Vaughn from Mind Hacks posts all 6 YouTube links and focuses on the difference between the two main active ingredients - THC and cannabidiol. Cannabidiol with THC makes people giddy and calm, while THC alone tends to make people agitated and paranoid (as Nicky shows us quite clearly). Since researchers say cannabis has anti-depressant effects, I'm sure our science-fiction pharmaceutical industry will finally find a way to circumvent the law and make pot pills a reality.

Anyway, the program is a good combination of entertaining and informative...

Life and Radiohead

From one of the Radiohead Video contest winners for the song, Reckoner.

I don't know the literal interpretation of the video, but it looks like life proliferating on earth and then out into the cosmos. I may be projecting here, but it shares an idea I've always had about life in general - on this planet we evolved from unicellular organisms into human beings with civilizations that will inevitably burn the place down. But life will find its way around somewhere else in the universe - just takes a while before it develops the self-awareness we have. Makes me wonder how many times it has already happened in the history of the universe...

Beautifully and tastefully done. Radiohead are at the forefront on how to share and create art.

8.13.2008

SSRI's For Life?

Yikes, came across this today on Furious Seasons - from Paxil Progress, this patient is told by his doctor that he'll have to remain on Paxil for the rest of his life.

"'[Y]ou may just be one of those people that have to stay on Paxil the remainder of your life. It is like insulin for diabetics. Many people take SSRIs for their whole life. Plus, because of the length that you have been on Paxil, you may never be able to get off it.'"
No big deal, right?

8.06.2008

Mel Brooks on Psychoanalysis in 1977

I've just caught a few scenes from Mel Brooks movie, High Anxiety, described by my cable service as:

"A doctor with vertigo heads the institute for the Very Very Nervous." Classic Mel Brooks (apart from when he wasn't doing The Producers as a musical, then a movie, then a musical again, then a movie again...).

Mel Brooks is Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, and I almost wish he was my pyschiatrist:

Dr. Thorndyke: Dr. Montague, I'm curious, what exactly is the rate of patient recovery here at the institute?

Dr. Montague: Rate of patient recovery? I'll have that for you in a minute (pulls a calculator from his coat pocket, hits some buttons)...once in a blue moon.
What's amazing is that all the cliches of the psychiatry community is just as applicable 30 years later.

8.01.2008

The Luck and Misfortune of Indoctrination

There are times when I see documentaries like HBO's, Hard as Nails that I think how fortunate I was to grow up in a household with no religion. I was, and am free to form my own opinions, to explore the nature of my environment as I choose. Sure, I had my fair share of political indoctrinations, but never religious ones.

Choice and will are amazingly powerful ideas, phenomenon that seem unique to human beings - though it seems the people that utilize their freedom of choice and will are the most susceptible to more extreme forms of madness and sadness.

It's then that I feel unfortunate (or maybe just scared) to be an atheist. That as Dan Gilbert attests (see TED lecture below), too many choices can cause misery. One is constantly weighing the what-if scenarios until whatever choice is made can never be perceived as the right one. More on that later...

Given my frustration and anger over the practice of religious indoctrination, like the atheist biologist, PZ Myers, and his vitriolic minions, I figured I'd find comfort in reading his blog. He practically lead the fight to smear Ben Stein's awful "documentary," Expelled, which peddles the virtues and breakthroughs of intelligent design, and defends itself against the evil tyranny of evolution proponents.

But sadly, after reading PZ's blog a while, and even commenting on a few posts, followed by being summarily ravaged by his readers for my views (and I'm an atheist), I found that instead of finding allies in this group, I found an angry mob that I couldn't relate to at all. Many of the people that find the time to comment on his blog appear to have become what they speak out against - dogmatic, pack-like, group thinkers. Their ideas are grossly simple and obnoxious - religious people are stupid, and atheists are enlightened. On top of that I find PZ to be a goading, narcissist, blowhard.

He actually commands his regular readers to vote on internet polls to skew the answers to silly religious questions. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea, and it appeals to the anarchist atheist in me, but it's the blind faith of his atheist congregation who adhere to his commandments like zombies that I find disconcerting. Of course, I'm not saying he's responsible for the comments of his readers, but he certainly seems to enjoy whipping his fanbase into a frenzy. It's reminiscent of the space monkeys in Fight Club. Though it might be part of a good cause on the surface, it breeds the same kind of indoctrination religion does.

On the flip side, the good fortune of indoctrination through religion is a confidence in life, a track. A feeling that there is a guide and/or reason, which removes the fear to take steps forward - one needn't worry, it's Meant To Be. Many of the theists I know are confident, intelligent people - their religious views relatively quiet. I only know the specifics of their beliefs because I tend to press the issue. And as I listen to their responses, I find myself envying their life as they seem to enjoy the quiet comfort that everything is in its right place. As opposed to more militant atheists (and I used to be one), I see no point in attacking people for their religious beliefs. Nine times out of ten, it just tends to polarize the issue.

We're born to believe. We're bred not just to listen to our parents, but to follow their rules with the fear of death. "If you cross that street without mommy, you'll get hit by that car." You better damn well listen. We are born with our temperaments, but otherwise, we're a sponge for the habits of our parents and culture. This ability ensures our survival - for most species, to question is to die.

But as we're learning, our biology doesn't correspond to our environment anymore. Many humans don't live in constant survival mode as opposed to the rest of the animals (excluding the ones we've domesticated). Civilization allows us to be freer to pursue other endeavors. Despite having all this extra time, the ability or inclination to question our personal indoctrinations is still fairly rare. Yes, it's still beneficial for a child to be obedient, but the side effect is that every child receives the superfluous religious and political beliefs of their parents, which carves patterns into their pliable but ultimately stubborn brains. It's pretty difficult to unlearn the wrong lessons of our parents while maintaining the good ones. Indoctrination is a double edge sword.

Blind, stupid, or some kind of neurological condition?

Check out this horse, look at those teeth!



I mean, really, how can you miss the picture that badly?

7.17.2008

Another Audio Illusion??

I LOVE these! From Wikipedia:

A Shepard tone, named after Roger Shepard, is a sound consisting of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. When played with the base pitch of the tone moving upwards or downwards, it is referred to as the Shepard scale. This creates the auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet which ultimately seems to get no higher or lower.


(Via Mind Hacks)

7.10.2008

5 Brain Hacks That Will Help You Survive a Disaster

From Io9 - in the context of your airplane going down or a pending zombie attack, will you keep it together? I'm a bit of a closet zombie nerd, and it always astounds me in the movie when a non-zombie person totally copes with their situation. If zombies starting busting through the windows of my apartment, I'd be 100% paralyzed with fear, period. Maybe after reading these tips, I will be better equipped to keep my cool...

  • Use a Mantra - Whether it's something simple to keep you focused ("I will survive.") or an inspiring reminder of what you'd miss if you give up ("I love my wife and kids."), repeating a mantra over and over can help clear your mind and get you through a chaotic situation.
  • Don't Be a Victim - Once your basic needs are taken care of (like, you're not going to bleed to death in the next few minutes), divert your attention to the other people around you. See what you can do to help them. This takes your focus off of your own injuries and mental trauma. People who maintain this kind of selfless behavior have better survival rates in disasters. That's just one more reason to start leading a less self-centered life.
  • Learn New Things - When you devote time and effort to learning a new task or skill, such as playing a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language, it literally changes the shape of your brain. If your life is in a rut and you follow the same routine, never trying anything new, your brain will have a hard time dealing with the sudden upheaval of a disaster. Keep your mind limber and you'll adapt more easily if the worst happens.
  • Stay Emotionally Cool - Anger, frustration, or despair will cloud your thinking and lead you to make poor, possibly fatal decisions in a disaster scenario. Staying calm and cool is perhaps the most important thing you can do in the aftermath, but you can't just decide to be calm. You have to train yourself to be cool while in line at the DMV, dealing with the "customer service" of your cell phone provider, or whenever you visit your in-laws.
  • One Step at a Time - What do you do when you find 100 zombies staggering through a corn field toward your isolated farm house? Lock the doors, barricade the windows, and find a gun. Seems simple, but could you clearly think through and prioritize those steps under such circumstances? This is a skill that you can use in your everyday life, whenever you feel totally overwhelmed by work and other responsibilities. Decide which one thing is the most efficient and important thing for you to do right now, then do it. Then do the next thing. Practice that and it will come naturally when the inevitable zombie apocalypse comes.
In the few seemingly life-threatening events I've experienced, I've actually found that thinking rationally about the logistics of the situation is a great removal from the overwhelming emotion that's usually involved. It allows you to turn your attention to what just happened three seconds ago, what's happening now, and what needs to happen three seconds from now. Who has time to freak out?

7.09.2008

Tom Wolfe & Michael Gazzaniga - Religion, Free Will, Confabulation - Come Get Some!

A great conversation between neuroscientist/psychologist, Michael Gazzaniga and writer, Tom Wolfe discussing some of my favorite neuro topics (see the video here).

From Tom Wolfe:

Many of today's leading theorists, such as E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Dan Dennett, probably know about as much on the human brain as a second-year graduate student in neuropsychology. That isn't their field. Wilson is a great zoologist and a brilliant writer. Dawkins, I'm afraid, is now just a PR man for evolution. He's kind of like John the Baptist — he goes around announcing the imminent arrival. Dennett, of course, is a philosopher and doesn't pretend to know anything about the brain. I think it has distorted the whole discussion.
This always astounds me - these guys on the front lines attacking religion avoid the best argument against God's existence - that it's generally impossible to see through the illusions created by the brain (which is why there are so few atheists). It's actually a simple explanation for the phenomenon of God - all of our consciousness is a brain-created illusion afterall. This is particularly ironic given Dennett's book "Consciousness Explained." (If you were wondering, I read it in college, and it wasn't explained, but keep fighting the good fight Danny!.) In my experience, philosopher's explanations of brain and consciousness rarely yield anything of substance.

Another sound bite I really loved:

MG: Okay, so what do you think language and speech are for? I mean, it's probably an adaptation. We're big animals, and that's one of the goodies that we got.

TW: I think speech is entirely different from other survival benefits. Only with speech can you ask the question, "Why?"

MG: Right.

TW: Animals cannot ask why. In one way or another, they can ask what, where, and when. But they cannot ask why. I've never seen an animal shrug. When you shrug, you're trying to say, "I don't know why." And they also can't ask how.

MG: Yeah.

TW: With language you can ask that question. I think it's at that point where religion starts.

MG: Right.

TW: Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, "Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?" And my assumption is that they said, "There must be somebody like us but much bigger, much more powerful, that could make all these trees, the streams. God must be really something, and you'd better not get on the wrong side of him." I think that's the way it started.

I love the idea that only humans shrug, but are you telling me an ape has never shrugged before?

This is my favorite quote from Gazzaniga:
As you may know, I came across this phenomenon that I call the Interpreter. It's something that's in the left hemisphere of the human; it tries to put a story together as to why something occurred. So, we found this in patients who've had their brains divided. What we could do is sort of tiptoe into their nonspeaking right hemisphere and get them to do something like walk out of the room or lift their hand up. Then we would ask the left hemisphere, "Why did you do that?" And they would cook up a story to make sense out of what their disconnected right hemisphere just did. The left brain didn't know that we'd pulled a trick on them, so they concoct an explanation for why they walked out of the room. And it's because this left hemisphere can ask, "Why? What's that all about?" But one of the things we've never been able to unpack is whether this Interpreter is completely overlapping with the language system and is therefore a sort of press agent for its own mechanism. What we do know is that there are separate systems for different types of cognition. And the Interpreter seems to be located in the parts of the brain where language is located. So many people do think that interpretive capacity comes with language; that this is the deal with language — it comes along for the ride. Others believe that there are actually all kinds of different cognitive mechanisms happening, and language reports them out. So the function of language is to talk about it, talk about what you know and communicate, "Hey! Look here, I know how to cook a fish. Here, let me show you how.
The idea of the "interpreter" is dramatically explained in Jill Bolte Taylor's amazing Ted talk. The other amazing quality of the interpreter is its propensity to confabulate. We're story telling machines, and when we don't know the answer to something, we fill in the blanks like it's a mad lib puzzle. This is another reason there are fables, myths and religion - they are our attempt at explaining things we don't quite understand.

Confabulation is normal, but it gets more extreme for people with memory impairments like Korsakoff Syndrome sufferers. What's even more interesting is that "confabulation" is a neuropsychiatric term that, in addition to describing a neurological phenomenon, also describes a phenomenon of consciousness. To me, it is a magic words because it incorporates both fields seamlessly. It's ideas like this that are so key to bridging the gaps between brain and consciousness.

---

Gazzaniga touches on another idea that is quickly (and unfortunately) gaining traction these days, which is that we basically don't have free will.
I'm involved in a new project called "Neuroscience and the Law," which I think you're familiar with. It brings up the idea that there are these causal forces that make us do the things we do, that by the time you're consciously aware of something, your brain's already done it. How else could it be? Because the brain is what's producing these mental events that we're sorting through. So these ideas — what I call the ooze of neuroscience — are going out everywhere, and people are willing to accept that: "My brain did it. Officer, it wasn't me." These defenses are popping up all over the judicial system. But if we adopt that, then it's hard to see why we have a retributive response to a wrongdoing. It would seem to me to be morally wrong to blame someone for something that was going to happen anyway because of forces beyond their control. So people get into this loop, and they get very concerned about the nature of our retributive response. This puts you right smack in the middle of the question: Are we free to do what we think we're doing?
I wrote a bit about this in the context of a short story by Kurt Vonnegut called Unready to Wear about the ability to leave your body, but maintain consciousness. Regretfully, I got into a fight at a baseball game once (my first and last I think), and it was one I could have diffused. I remember very distinctly time slowing down and having a moment to make a decision. My body was in its survival mode, so the adrenalin coating my cells was making its argument pretty convincingly. Still, I made that decision to fight, and I suffered a gouged eye by the end (no permanent damage, thank you). In the language of the Wolfe/Gazzaniga conversation, I suppose this was my interpreter, walled in by a mess of other cognitive and subcortical streams trying to make a decision. Makes me wonder if there's a right-brained, pre-linguistic interpreter? Or is the very idea of "interpreting" more of a serial left-brain phenomenon?

This idea that there is no free will is dangerous, it strips people of accountability. During the Monica Lewinsky debacle, Bill Clinton made the idea of being a sexaholic a semi-acceptable excuse for being a horny bastard - as if he had no choice but to receive blowjobs in the oval office. Poor guy has an addiction dammit! It's neurological!

The same issue applies to something like quitting smoking - people are so afraid to take responsibility for quitting that they'd rather take a psychotropic SSRI like Chantix (which is known to cause very serious movement disorders) instead of using their will to quit at every moment they are tempted.

Okay, this post is long enough, if you'd rather hear the more brilliant scholars go on about this stuff, skip me, and read them, I won't be hurt!

7.01.2008

Want a Migraine?

Here, look at this visual illusion (looks like a devastating scintillating scotoma)

I've never quite seen one like this before. There is no motion, but you perceive motion anyway.

The eye sends information to the brain through different types of neurons. Some of these neurons transmit information faster than others, and some of these neurons respond more quickly to high-contrast parts of an image than to low-contrast parts of the image. Because of these differences, the response of the eye to one part of the illusory pattern reaches the brain at a slightly different time than the response of the eye to another part of the illusory pattern. The difference in the arrival time is exactly the same type of event that would occur with “real” motion, and so motion detectors in the brain signal that motion has occurred.

6.27.2008

SPORE May Finally Turn Me Into a Video Game Nerd

I've really never been high on video games, I've always had a hard time finding any value in them. But Spore has certainly caught my attention.

It allows a player to control the evolution of a species from its beginnings as a unicellular organism, through development as an intelligent and social creature, to interstellar exploration as a spacefaring culture.
This game ends up being a coincidentally perfect example of what creationism would look like if you were God. Hope no one gets confused ;).

Reminds me of that Halloween Simpsons episode where Lisa accidentally creates life - she watches the evolving humanoids create fire, civilization, and then futurama-like cities. Since their technology surpasses ours, they develop a shrinker ray and beam her down into their world believing she's God. Then they start asking her all the big life questions - my favorite, "Why do good things happen to bad people?"

Best Dancing Bird I've Ever Seen

This bird just smokes on the dance floor. This was initially just an internet phenomenon, but according to Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, this bird could shed some light on the neurology of dancing. More importantly it explores the possibility of using dance as a treatment for neurodegenerative movement disorders like Parkinson's Disease.

"Music with a beat can sometimes help people with Parkinson’s disease to initiate and coordinate walking," says Patel. "But we don’t know why. If non-human animals can synchronize to a beat, what we learn from their brains could be relevant for understanding the mechanisms behind the clinical power of rhythmic music in Parkinson’s."
I just hope my mom watches this...

(Via Neurophilosophy),

Benny Luva Was A Neuroscientist

I hope Jonah Lehrer doesn't get mad at me for stealing his clever title trick, but as my obsession with one of the most important neuroscience principles continues to grow, I had to post another (hilarious) example of top down processing.

An "interpretation" of the lyrics are subtitled during this electric (and I DO mean electric) Bollywood video, which actually changes the perception of what you think you're hearing.

Michael Shermer did a TED talk about this phenomenon, but he used Stairway to Heaven played backwards - I'm not sure it's as effective as Benny Luva here...

See more funny videos at Funny or Die

6.24.2008

Good Critique on Recent Homosexuality Study

I found a great critical review of the amgydala/hemisphere symmetry study I posted about the other day (via The Neurocritic). After providing examples of numerous confounds to the study, the reviewer made this conclusion:

There are many more technical problems with the analytical techniques used in this study. I'm not going to bother going through all of them. Needless to say, this study proves absolutely nothing, and is just another example of bad science. As an MRI researcher, this article offends me personally, for it gives MRI and PET research a bad rap; I'm going to go throw up now.
I would still take this a step further. It's not just the analytical techniques, it's the starting point. We are mired in this search to correlate vague, highly complex variables from two disparate systems - sexuality and the size of a brain region. I know I keep saying this, but it's just phrenology with better tools.

Studies in neuroscience historically run into problems because they try to run before they can walk. While it's amazing to have the technology to measure these brain differences, our understanding of consciousness, personality, character, sexuality, addiction, habitual behavior, etc. is still too questionable and badly defined to make true correlations with neurological attributes. We're nowhere close to close on this one.

The nature of these "neuropsychological" studies is still in dire need of a paradigm shift.

6.20.2008

The Fruitless Hunt for the Physical Substrate of Homosexuality

It seems these silly studies comparing brain regions of gay and straight people are surfacing again. Frankly, if I was gay (which I'm not), I'd be offended by these studies. There is still zero definition of actual character traits when studying these people. We're defining "gay" by an attraction to the same sex. So that's it? All "gay" men act like women? Why not just assume all gay men love the The Bird Cage too?

This idea that gay women have masculinized brains and vice versa is a total stereotype and grossly inaccurate. There are exceptions to the rule everywhere - for instance, how do we categorize macho, aggressive male rappers with homophobic lyrics that also...have sex with men! Like with any shoddy study, they just ignore the unwanted data. And don't let that stop the science writers from the absurd extrapolations like the headline from New Scientist - "Gay brains structured like those of the opposite sex."

This claim is based on a study with 45 gay and straight people - not exactly a huge sample size. Not to mention, there's no implication that maybe the difference in amygdala structure may be caused by experience.

This is just another example of dark ages phrenology...I mean, current neuroscience.

Aural Illusion

I'm guessing this is an example of top down processing (click that link to the left, it's a great explanation of TDP).

First, watch and listen to the video below.



Sounds sort of like "dada dada dada."

Now close your eyes and play it.

It switches to "baba baba baba." Not sure this works for everyone, but it did for me. My guess is seeing the hippie guy mouth the pronunciation of a "da" sound actually changes your perception of the sound. Close your eyes, and your hear the actual sound being made. The visual information is tricking your auditory perception. It's not an extraordinary example of top down processing, but it's pretty interesting.

(from Bad Astronomy)

6.18.2008

How to Nap

Really informative little graphic in the Boston Globe on how to nap.

6.16.2008

Look! No Hands!

Here's a video clip of a guy navigating his Second Life Avatar with his brain. It is speculated that this could help people with Locked-in Syndrome, a rare affliction that was the topic of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," written by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This would potentially allow these people to communicate more effectively - certainly more so than Bauby's pain-staking process:

"The entire book was written by Bauby blinking his left eyelid - in July and August of 1996. A transcriber repeatedly recited a French language frequency-ordered alphabet (E S A R I N T U L etc.), until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter. The book took about 200,000 blinks to write and each word took approximately two minutes"

6.13.2008

Can't Get That Song Out of Your Head?

Listen to the whole thing, apparently...interesting, if not a bit counter-intuitive...

"Getting "Eye of the Tiger" stuck in your head is the result of a glitch in your auditory cortex. This part of your brain processes sounds and stores them for later recall. It powers up and can start crooning uncontrollably after hearing just a few notes of a familiar tune. Want it to stop? Listen to the whole song or do some math"
Why would you ever want Eye of the Tiger out of your head? I'd be more concerned if it was, "near... far...whereEVER you are..."

Is it in your head now? It's in mine. So I have to go listen to the whole damn song? Not sure I'm happy with this solution...

To digress, the way we describe brain processes still sounds screwy to me. The idea of "powering up" areas of the brain paints an over-simplified and inaccurate picture.

6.12.2008

In Entertainment News...

Dr. Drew Calls Tom Cruise "mentally ill." I can't say I'm a HUGE Dr. Drew fan, but sometimes he comes out with gems like this:

"A lot of people in the public eye who behave strangely have mental illness we can learn from, and much of it is based on childhood trauma, without a doubt. Take a guy like Tom Cruise. Why would somebody be drawn into a cultish kind of environment like Scientology? To me, that's a function of a very deep emptiness and suggests serious neglect in childhood - maybe some abuse, but mostly neglect."
To a lot, this probably sounds like psychobabble, but from my experience, and based on what I've learned from the few the really good psychiatrists I've met (all one of them) - abuse and neglect are the main culprits for futurepathological behavior. It is NOT chemical imbalances and neurological disorders - that's a pharmaceutical fantasy...

6.02.2008

Smoking Cessation Drug = Life Cessation

This one just blows me away. Have you tried the Chantix to quit smoking? Yet another SSRI on the market to treat any old condition (smoking, despression, obesity, social anxiety - what's the difference?)

Here's a new catch, the drug has been banned for truck drivers, pilots, and traffic controllers due to its side effects (another example of the odd movement disorders associated with SSRI's). According to the Wall Street Journal's Health blog:

"More than 100 traffic or personal accidents, like falling, have been linked to Chantix in a recent study by outside researchers; their figures came from in the FDA’s adverse events database. One hypothesis is that convulsions, blackouts, seizures or spasms could have contributed to such incidents."
I read one account about a guy driving his truck while on Chantix and crashed into a bayou:
"His girlfriend, Melinda Lofton, who was with him, later told him that his eyes had rolled back in his head and that it had seemed as if he was frozen at the wheel, accelerating."
That one really spooked me. God, I need a cigarette...

(This is linked from Furious Seasons)

"Brain Downloads" Are Not Going to Happen

Nice to see Neurophilosophy agrees with me on this one. Here's a totally stupid and uninformed article on why "brain downloads 'will make [school] lessons pointless.'"

Just recently, I wrote a post about why this is impossible (in the context of Dr. Daniel Carlat's Wired article on brain scans), it seems the progressive ideas of the Matrix are far too pervasive in our culture.

"I think people will be able to directly access, Matrix-style, all the vocabulary you need for a foreign language, leaving you just to clear up the grammar."
This amazingly asinine quote comes from the guy steering curriculum for 1300 private schools in the UK. Best of luck with that, stupid...



Not quite, Neo...

5.30.2008

Monkey Uses Brain to Move Robotic Arm

I haven't read much about this, but it gives hope towards the idea of making life easier for paraplegics or other amputees. I'm very curious to know where the electrodes are placed in his (or her) brain and how they trained him to use the arm. Like any physical skill, I assume it just requires practice, and then becomes second nature.

Yet another example the Singularity is Near...

I'm no PETA member, but I always feel bad for the monkeys in experiments like these, poor little guy just wants his marshmellow.

5.29.2008

Brain Scans Sound Like Phrenology

Psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Carlat has a great article in Wired about the overhype of brain scans. Referring to the terabytes of brain scan data we've accumulated since the advent of the EEG, he asks: "Are we really seeing the mind in action, or are we allowing ourselves to be seduced by images that may actually tell us very little?"

The over-extrapolated brain scan is being utilized in many different arenas outside of medicine now - marketing, law, and politics to name a few.

In the article, Dr. Carlat recounts his experience receiving a brain evaluation at the Amen Clinic - which touts a "prescription for a better brain." Dr. Amen does a Spect (a specific kind of brain scan) on Dr. Carlat and takes a personal and family history of depression.

An excerpt of his "analysis":

...Scrutinizing the scans some more, he (Dr. Amen) says, "You need to be busy to be happy. Your brain is cool at rest. You need stuff in your life to feel alive, together, and connected." He looks at another view, this one showing only the most active regions of my brain. "In this scan, you have increased activity in your thalamus, your two basal ganglia, and your cingulate cortex." He picks up a pen and draws a line connecting these four regions to the right lateral temporal lobe. "I call this the diamond plus.' It's a pattern of angst, and we see it in people who have had significant trauma in their lives."
Dr. Carlat goes on to make the apt comparison of these results to a palm reading:
...I find myself comparing my assessment meeting with Amen to experiences I've had with shrewd palm readers. Like them, Amen made vague pronouncements that could apply to anyone: "You're happier when you're busy." When he made specific statements about my moods and life events, they seemed to be based on information he obtained the old-fashioned way — by asking questions. He already knew about my family history of depression and my mother's suicide when he mentioned a "predisposition to depression" and "significant trauma." Occasionally, he was completely off the mark, like when he saw neural signs of temper problems. In fact, when my wife and I argue, my calmness is exasperating, leading her to ask, "Do you even have a pulse?"
Dr. Carlat discusses the Amen Clinic with a vocal skeptic (Robert Rubin) who easily describes why this is such shotty science:
Rubin, a noted researcher on brain functioning in depression, draws two circles on a sheet of paper. He points to the first and says, "Let's say this represents a bunch of people with low activity of the frontal lobe, and let's say, for the sake of argument, that many of them also have depression." Then he points to the second circle. "And here are all the people without depression. Do any of these people also have low frontal lobe activity? You bet they do. So there are people with depression who have this finding, and people without depression with this finding. How is the finding helpful?"
When I studied neuroscience in college, I was always weary of extrapolating results from neuroimaging studies. And I still think neuroscience is going down a fruitless path in this direction. This idea that we can identify our inclinations, temperament, and moods, or diagnose our depression via fMRI's, EEGs, and Spect is pervasive, but completely unproven. I don't quite agree with Dr. Carlat's idea that while we haven't accomplished this mental transparency yet, we will eventually. I don't see this ever happening, here's why.

This logic is like running a scan on the intel chip in your Macbook to diagnose why a song won't play on iTunes. Or vice versa, to run a scan on your mother board and determine that you're probably having trouble running macros in Excel. The language of the software is completely different than the language of the hardware. And while you need the hardware to run the software, tweaking the hardware isn't going to fix specific software problems.

This metaphor applies to the distinction between our brain and consciousness - they speak different languages. You can't diagnose a problem in consciousness by analyzing the biology of the brain - it's a waste of time. Depression is not a disease of the brain, like some kidney disease that can be treated with medication. The brain creates a whole bigger than the sum of its parts - consciousness. But that doesn't mean that tweaking its wires can fix something specific in consciousness. This only works in extreme cases like giving L-Dopa to Parkinson's patients (in Awakenings).

The only way to determine a cause for depression is to see the story of an individual's life experience, and analyze what's problematic (no small task from what I've heard). This analysis must be on par with that life experience, which is on the software level (mind/consciousness); not the hardware level (brain). No one speaks the language of snyapsese.

This is why I find it so important to differentiate between neurological and psychological disorders - a brain scan is vital for finding a stroke, brain tumors, or early signs of Alzheimer's Disease, but I highly doubt we'll ever be able to use one to see the actual content of our consciousness. This kind of transparency is a lost cause.

A good pop culture example of this logical shortcoming is the major plot hole in Minority Report - how exactly are computers translating the brain activity of the pre-cogs into visual images displayed on monitors? No brain scan in the world will solve the phenomenological problem. Guess that's why it's called science fiction...

UPDATE: Dr. Carlat posted some more thoughts on the response to his Wired article. The more I read about Amen, the more of a charlatan he appears to be...

5.22.2008

Hey, Douchebag, try posting more...

God, I'm mean to myself. Still, more will be coming, life got a bit upended recently. But I saw Alex linking to the Times Machine on his blog, and had to link to it here. Of course, my nerdy mind thought it would have something to do with time travel, but this is still awesome.

I have a backlog of stuff I want to post, so a powerful ejaculation of information and odd opinion is on its way...

5.21.2008

Mary Had A Little Luuuuuuurrrrrggggghhhh....amb, Little Lurrrrrrgggghhhh....

Transcranial magnetic stimulation frightens me. It's supposedly pretty harmless, as you can see below in the video. They're targeting the language center of this man's brain. It stops him cold as he recites Humpty Dumpty, but amazingly enough, it doesn't interrupt him when he sings it. The TMS is targeted on his left frontal lobe where the center for language production is located, but music is in the right hemisphere, so it is not effected.

As a migraine sufferer this is intriguing, because they are using this method to treat the syndrome (as well as stroke and Parkinson's). I just don't think I'm quite ready for having my brain stimulated by anything where I'm not at least pushing the button. Then again, I don't have very severe ones - if that was the case (I'm looking at you, Dad), I would give it a shot.



TMS is also used to treat Dystonia



The film (above) on Dystonia (Twisted) is very good, and an amazing example of what a machine the brain and body is. Like consciousness, we take it for granted when it's functional - we don't appreciate its unbelievable functionality until it becomes damaged.

Tired Of Your Own Identity?

I feel this way all the time, and thought it was well expressed in Before Sunrise (a movie I had never actually seen until very recently).

From Ethan Hawke's character in Before Sunrise:

"It's usually myself that i wish i could get away from
I have never been anywhere that I haven't been
I've never had a kiss that i wasn't one of the kissers
I've never gone to the movies when I wasn't there in the audience
I've never been bowling when I wasn't there making some stupid joke
I think that's why so many people hate themselves, seriously
They're sick to death of being around themselves."
Funny to cross-reference this blog with my band, but I wrote a song about this sentiment called "Not My Own," which you can hear on my band, Monuments' Myspace page. Both express a yearning to be dissociated from one's self.

Charlie Kaufman Discovers My Wheelhouse, Exploits It Again

His directorial debut, Synecdoche looks amazing. His normal blend of subtle science fiction, neuroscience, philosophy, and all things meta are all in full force in this preview (volume is weird, you have to turn it up quite a bit). You can read about the synopsis under the preview.

5.15.2008

Fiction Vs Reality?


The boundaries are getting blurred. From Neurocritic, a real live Telekinesis competition hosted by Noxious Sector.

"an ongoing collaborative endeavor by Canadian artists Ted Hiebert, Doug Jarvis and Jackson 2Bears, dedicated to the exploration of alternative cognitive function, the paranormal and the absurd."
Is this just silly performance art, or are these dudes actually trying to move things with their minds? In the misinformation internet age, I really can't tell what's real anymore. Gave me a good chuckle either way.

5.13.2008

Predictably Irrational

A book I will be reading soon (thanks, Alex) by Dan Ariely. Neuroscience and psychology principles through the eyes of economics - interesting stuff.

He describes how placebos work in the video below. Another example of research on the effect expectations and top-down processing have on perception (in this case, pain and flavor). It's experiments like these that makes you realize how subjective and malleable ideas of pain and taste are.

Human experience is a messy operation - one science continues to analyze the same way we would balance a chemical equation. Most "data" in psychology and neuroscience is too confounded to be applicable.

(PS - not a huge surprise that he mentions how antidepressants don't fare much better than placebos.)

5.10.2008

Colbert Science

"...when you investigate the world through the scientific method, you are basically dissecting the rainbow. what could be more beautiful of an experiment than to just look at something and say, "God did it." That's the most beautiful possible explanation because it involves salvation and the afterlife...why do we have to junk it up with thought?"
Ha, I love Colbert, but I've read he does believe in God, so I have to admit it's sometimes hard to tell where the joke begins and ends - maybe that's what makes him so good.

5.09.2008

Interesting Post on Stalking

By Neurocritic.

A unique combination of the new song by Death Cab for Cutie, Huntington's Disease, OCD, basal ganglia pathology, and of course serotonin and dopamine pathways. Interesting stuff, but still leaves out the character/consciousness side of the equation. This is still only one half of the story. Not everything about ourselves can be reduced to brain disorders.

Happy Tattoo


You get back from the party, you're both feeling good, clothes are coming off, then you see this beauty.

From what I read, serotonin is her favorite neurotransmitter.

I'm more of a dopamine guy myself.

5.07.2008

Seroquel, Another Apparently Fun Antidepressant

From a reader comment on Furious Season's Blog:

"I took 200 mgs. of Seroquel daily for two years after a questionable diagnosis for Bipolar II (manic symptoms appeared only after treatment with antidepressants or with high doses of IV steroids). Now, a year after withdrawing from Seroquel, I still wake up every two hours, and I still have episodes of akithisia. I believe this drug has permanently damaged my nervous system. I struggled with deep depression the entire time I was taking Seroquel; since withdrawing (a painful process) my mood has improved."
Another example of akathesia and SSRI's - not good.